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

DebateTech
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Politicians: it's no longer OK to know nothing about technology

It’s bad enough to joke about not being "techy"; it's worse to write a piece of legislation from a position of ignorance. 

Earlier this week, facing down a 600-strong battalion of London’s tech sector at a mayoral hustings in Stratford, Zac Goldsmith opened his five minute pitch with his characteristic charm. “I’m not very techy!” he exclaimed. “I understand coding about as well as Swahili!”

Pointless jibe at a foreign language aside, this was an ill-chosen way to begin his address - especially considering that the rest of his speech showed he was reasonably well-briefed on the problems facing the sector, and the solutions (including improving broadband speeds and devolving skills budgets) which could help.

But the offhand reference to his own ignorance, and the implication that it would be seen as attractive by this particular audience, implies that Goldsmith, and other politicians like him, haven’t moved on since the 90s. The comment seemed designed to say: “Oh, I don't know about that - I'll leave it to the geeks like you!"

This is bad enough from a mayoral hopeful.  But on the same day, the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament filed its report on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill, the legislation drafted by the Home Office which will define how and how far the government and secret services can pry into our digital communications. Throughout, there's the sense that the ISC doesn't think the MPs behind the bill had a firm grasp on the issues at hand. Words like "inconsistent" and "lacking in clarity" pop up again and again. In one section, the authors note:

"While the issues under consideration are undoubtedly complex, we are nevertheless concerned that thus far the Government has missed the opportunity to provide the clarity and assurance which is badly needed."

The report joins criticism from other directions, including those raised by Internet Service Providers last year, that the bill's writers didn't appear to know much about digital communications at all, much less the issues surrounding encryption of personal messages.

One good example: the bill calls for the collection of "internet connection records", the digital equivalent of phone call records, which show the domains visited by internet users but not their content. But it turns out these records don't exist in this form: the bill actually invented both the phrase and the concept. As one provider commented at the time, anyone in favour of their collection "do not understand how the Internet works". 

Politicians have a long and colourful history of taking on topics - even ministerial posts - in fields they know little to nothing about. This, in itself, is a problem. But politicians themselves are often the people extolling importance of technology, especially to the British economy - which makes their own lack of knowledge particularly grating. No politician would feel comfortable admitting a lack of knowledge, on, say, economics. I can’t imagine Goldsmith guffawing "Oh, the deficit?  That's all Greek to me!"  over dinner with Cameron. 

The mayoral candidates on stage at the DebateTech hustings this week were eager to agree that tech is London’s fastest growing industry, but could do little more than bleat the words “tech hub” with fear in their eyes that someone might ask them what exactly that meant. (A notable exception was Green candidate Sian Berry, who has actually worked for a tech start-up.) It was telling that all were particularly keen on improving internet speeds -  probably because this is something they do have day-to-day engagement with. Just don't ask them how to go about doing it.

The existence of organisations like Tech London Advocates, the industry group which co-organised the hustings, is important, and can go some way towards educating the future mayor on the issues the industry faces. But the technology and information sectors have been responsible for 30 per cent of job growth in the capital since 2009 - we can't afford to have a mayor who blanches at the mention of code. 

If we’re to believe the politicians themselves, with all their talk of coding camps and skills incubators and teaching the elderly to email, we need a political sphere where boasting that you're not "techy" isn’t cool or funny - it’s just kind of embarrassing. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.