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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.