An open letter to Eric Pickles

People are losing control of the public spaces they love. Give local councils a say over betting sho

People are losing control of the public spaces they love. Give local councils a say over betting shops.

Dear Mr Pickles,

I'm writing to invite you to Peckham. People here feel that their high streets are being inundated with betting shops. They feel that they are losing control of the public spaces they love. They look to me and my fellow councillors for leadership, but at present we don't have any meaningful powers to change things. You have the ability to grant us that authority, and we want to show you why.

High Streets First is a new campaign I've launched with the grassroots group Grasp asking you to give local councils a say over betting shops. We launched last week and broke 1,000 signatures in two days. Endorsements came in from MPs including Tom Watson, David Lammy and Harriet Harman. Conservative Councillor David Parsons and the LGA pledged their support for reform. Owen Jones and the blogs got on board. We received great press coverage, and more is on its way.

If you accept invitation an invitation to our borough, I'd start by giving you a tour. At present there are 77 betting shops in Southwark, and more are opening up as businesses close in the downturn. Local people are not against gambling, but they are against this kind of proliferation. On a map, it looks something like this:

map

Map: Harriet Harman MP. The Problem of Betting Shops. November 2011

I don't know how many betting shops there are in your Brentwood and Ongar constituency. I imagine less, because research from the Responsible Gambling Fund suggests they are clustering machines in areas that are poorest. In Southwark the average family income is £17k, and I pass eight bookies on the ten-minute walk to my council surgery.

Dirk Vennix, head of the Association of British Bookmakers, says that betting shops can bring life to empty high streets. I don't doubt that's true in some cases, but that's not happening here. People in Peckham say they are fuelling debt, addiction and anti-social behaviour. They say they are putting off other businesses by blighting the high street.

Some of the biggest concerns come from people who are in the betting industry themselves. This is what one manager from Camberwell, where there are five bookies within 200m, told me:

"In the area I'm in there aren't that many rich people coming in. People who are unemployed, people who are on benefits, and you get a lot of retired men coming in to pass the time. You get younger lot coming in thinking they're going to earn money. Seriously... we're quite close to the Maudsley (hospital for mental health) and we get people who are homeless wanting to double their money... some of the stores open at 7am and we get people coming in and spending their whole day going from one shop to the other, especially people with no money."

"...you have to deal with all sorts of personalities, and some can be very nasty. They do get violent as well. They kick the machines when they're losing. I've seen people pick up stalls and smash them over the machines. They're rude to me but it's just part of the job..."

"...I see people come in from the pawn shops and pay day loan shops, people who pawn their phone chasing their money (that's already been lost). You get to know the customers and they give you their life story and they take advantage. They say "borrow me £1 or £2 and I'll pay you back as soon as I've won". Sometimes they ask you just for a drink or something to eat. Some genuinely don't have the money for that at the end of the day."

This manager says he hates his job, but he does it to pay the bills and look after his daughter. His real dream is to be a youth worker, but there aren't that many opportunities available right now.

Local residents also have their concerns. Georgina Green, secretary of Consort Residents Association, is one of the hundreds who are leaving messages of support on our petition and via email:

Personally feel its morally wrong to encourage folk to gamble, yes to personal choice just not when every other shop screams lose your money to an already stressed out and depressed populous!

This isn't just an issue for Southwark. A number of local councils have tried to challenge unpopular new betting shops and failed. Recently a group of female councillors in Leeds lost a battle to stop a new Ladbrokes opening in the entrance to their historic Morley's market. More concerns have been raised in Northampton. Lewisham has also run into difficulties.

Your own independent review into high streets by Mary Portas recommended you grant local councils the power to decide how many betting shops they want on their streets. Doing this seems consistent with your proud and vocal commitment to localism, and it doesn't cost a penny. Local democracy should be a principle, not a gamble.

Please put High Streets First, and come to Peckham.

Yours,

Cllr Rowenna Davis

Rowenna Davis is a councillor, journalist and author of Tangled up in Blue: Blue Labour and the Struggle for Labour's Soul, published by Ruskin Publishing at £8.99. She is also a Labour councillor.

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit