High Streets First: a response to Eric Pickles

Don't be fooled by claims that the number of betting shops is decreasing.

Dear Mr Pickles,

Thank you for taking the time to reply to High Streets First, the campaign calling on you to give local people the power to limit the number of betting shops in their neighbourhoods. We have happily accepted your invitation to meet Bob Neill MP.

Since you have declined our invitation to Southwark to see the problem for yourself, I thought I'd give you a visible contrast of the number of betting shops in our area compared to yours:

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It seems that your constituency of Brentwood and Ongar has more florists than bookies. This map shows just seven betting shops in total, compared to ten flower shops. Southwark has over 68 active licensces for bookies, with nine in Camberwell Green ward alone.

I can't help but think that if you suffered this kind of proliferation in your area, you'd get what we're talking about.

Please don't be fooled by the bookmakers' claims that their numbers are decreasing. Despite the downturn, the total has risen to over 9,000 in the last few years, with many clustering in poorer areas See p. 6-8 here and p. 9 here.

Crucially, we have also seen an explosion in the number of high stakes gaming machines to over 32,000.

It's great that you acknowledge this principle in your letter:

"It is important that local communities can manage the overall retail diversity, vitality and viability of their high streets... I understand there can sometimes be concerns raised about problems faced by the clustering of betting shops in some high streets."

But I'm slightly concerned by this:

"...you may be aware local authorities already have the power to limit development in their areas, through article four directions..."

The fact is that Article 4 directions don't work for councillors. Even the LGA says they are "cumbersome, bureaucratic and costly". If local people want to block a store, we have to give a years notice or face potentially colossal compensation claims from large bookmaker companies.

Southwark isn't the only area that gets this. Since we launched, several thousand people have signed our petition, and many other councils have contacted us in support. We are meeting Waltham Forest and Ealing, and Manchester is passing a motion in support of the campaign that is spreading throughout the North West.

The media also seem to get it. You might have seen our coverage in the Daily Mail, the BBC Today programme, the One Show, the Independent, the Wright Stuff, BBC London and Southwark News. More is on its way.

We also have celebrity endorsement from "the Real Hustler" Alexis Conran on the back of his documentary on addiction, and a whole bunch of community groups are getting in touch. They are keen to start letter writing campaigns and build the petition. A group of young people in Southwark felt so strongly about the issue they stood outside Elephant and Castle shopping centre and collected 250 signatures off their own back.

Then of course there is the public. A recent poll by the LGA and ComRes found that over three quarters of people want central government to give councils more power over their high streets. Some 68 per cent are specifically against existing rules that allow betting shops to take over banks and building societies without planning permission.

We're not going away either. The campaign is now formally being led by GRASP () with a coalition of politicians, former addicts, grassroots groups, medical experts, churches and councillors. We're achieving all of this in our spare time around full time jobs, but more people are coming out in support every day.

We'd love you to join us.

Rowenna Davis is a 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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How to think about the EU result if you voted Remain

A belief in democracy means accepting the crowd is wiser than you are as an individual. 

I voted Remain, I feel sick about this result and its implications for what’s to come. But I’m a believer in democracy. This post is about how to reconcile those two things (it’s a bit unstructured because I’m working it out as I go, and I’m not sure I agree with all of it).

Democracy isn’t just fairer than other systems of governance, it’s smarter. It leads to better decisions and better outcomes, on average and over the long run, than countries that are run by autocrats or councils of wise men with jobs for life. It is simply the best way we have yet devised of solving complex problems involving many people. On that topic, if you’re not averse to some rather dense and technical prose, read this post or seek out this book. But the central argument is that democracy is the best way of harnessing ‘cognitive diversity’ — bringing to bear many different perspectives on a problem, each of which are very partial in themselves, but add up to something more than any one wise person.

I don’t think you can truly be a believer in democracy unless you accept that the people, collectively, are smarter than you are. That’s hard. It’s easy to say you believe in the popular will, right up until the popular will does something REALLY STUPID. The hard thing is not just to ‘accept the result’ but to accept that the majority who voted for that result know or understand something better than you. But they do. You are just one person, after all, and try as you might to expand your perspective with reading (and some try harder than others) you can’t see everything. So if a vote goes against you, you need to reflect on the possibility you got it wrong in some way. If I look at the results of past general elections and referendums, for instance, I now see they were all pretty much the right calls, including those where I voted the other way.

One way to think about the vote is that it has forced a slightly more equitable distribution of anxiety and alienation upon the country. After Thursday, I feel more insecure about my future, and that of my family. I also feel like a foreigner in my own country — that there’s this whole massive swathe of people out there who don’t think like me at all and probably don’t like me. I feel like a big decision about my life has been imposed on me by nameless people out there. But of course, this is exactly how many of those very people have been feeling for years, and at a much higher level of intensity. Democracy forces us to try on each other’s clothes. I could have carried on quite happily ignoring the unhappiness of much of the country but I can’t ignore this.

I’m seeing a lot of people on Twitter and in the press bemoaning how ill-informed people were, talking about a ‘post-factual democracy’. Well, maybe, though I think that requires further investigation - democracy has always been a dirty dishonest business. But surely the great thing about Thursday that so many people voted — including many, many people who might have felt disenfranchised from a system that hasn’t been serving them well. I’m not sure you’re truly a democrat if you don’t take at least a tiny bit of delight in seeing people so far from the centres of power tipping the polity upside down and giving it a shake. Would it have been better or worse for the country if Remain had won because only informed middle-class people voted? It might have felt better for people like me, it might actually have been better, economically, for everyone. But it would have indicated a deeper rot in our democracy than do the problems with our national information environment (which I accept are real).

I’m not quite saying ‘the people are always right’ — at least, I don’t think it was wrong to vote to stay in the EU. I still believe we should have Remained and I’m worried about what we’ve got ourselves into by getting out. But I am saying they may have been right to use this opportunity — the only one they were given — to send an unignorable signal to the powers-that-be that things aren’t working. You might say general elections are the place for that, but our particular system isn’t suited to change things on which there is a broad consensus between the two main parties.

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.