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:
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.