“I’ll pay you back as soon as I’ve won,” says the guy blocking my way out. It’s almost 10pm, and Ladbrokes is still open. I’ve come in to see what it’s like, and accidentally won my bet back ten fold. Now everyone is watching me pocket my winnings in a neon lit room littered with failed paper bets. I’m surrounded by a group of guys in black padded jackets who ran out of money long ago.
Betting shops have always come with their problems, but the challenges they pose today are fundamentally different to the past. We are dealing with an industry that has become commodified, mechanised and — in some of the poorest areas of our communities — totally mainstream. Our democratic structures were not designed to deal with this, and they’re failing. Something needs to be done.
Globalisation has transformed this industry. It means that betting is no longer limited by our country’s sports seasons or daylight hours. Paddy Power outlets now open at 7am, allowing people to place bets on their way to work in the dark, and close at 10pm long after everything else on high street has shut. Racing in Paraguay, Australia and Japan means live races are happening constantly. In the shop I was in, they were taking bets on 130 live events a day.
And that’s not including virtual races. In perhaps the oddest twist of the industry, the cashier showed me a timetable of virtual games that ran every four minutes. If there’s nothing else on, customers can bet on a computer-generated horse that races on the big screen. Betting is no longer reserved for special events or particular players that you can research or form an emotional attachment to or even touch. It has become brutal, mechanistic and void.
Then, of course, there’s the recent introduction of FOBTs — slot machines offering games like Routlette and Bingo — brought in over the last few years to keep you occupied in the one or two minutes you might still have free.
Gambling used to be social. But the increased speed and frequency of bets has short-circuited the need for human relationships. New mechanised cashiers mean you can gamble away a million without talking to a soul. Increased competition between the four big brands that dominate the market — Bet Fred, Paddy Power, William Hill and Coral — are aggressively competing by cutting staff. Mainstream betting shops no longer provide exciting, special experiences so much as fast, dirty transactions.
Betting shops are fast on their way to becoming 24 hour rooms manned by bouncers alone.
Although the total number of betting shops has remained relatively stable over the last five years, there are increasing concerns that stores are becoming more concentrated in poor and deprived areas such as Waltham Forest, Newham and Liverpool. Hackney has 64 betting shops — three times the national average for a local authority — and in my hometown of Southwark, important research from Harriet Harman has found 77. Meanwhile, David Lammy has pointed out that Tottenham has 39 bookmakers but not a single bookshop.
Betting shops cluster around particular high streets as well as certain boroughs. They are often conveniently located next to payday loan stores. Their staff, in colourfully branded caps and t-shirts, echo nearby fast food outlets. In Southwark, they are spreading on Rye Lane and the Walworth Road, opening up whenever another business goes under in the downturn. There are even rumours one may replace a local jobs centre.
“They (betting shops) are often located near post offices,” says Ruth Champion, a therapeutic director from the problem gambling charity Gordon Moody. “We have to ask, are they targeting people coming out with a giro? It’s getting harder and harder for the people we treat to be in a safe place.”
All this is big money. The Gambling Commission estimates that the UK gambling industry was worth some £5.6 billion in 2010, and the betting sector represents 52 per cent of that market. It can’t go on like this.
Ladbrokes on Peckham High Street was one of the shops kicked in during the August riots. I remember it left a cracked spider web of broken glass. There’s a growing anger at these businesses from some of poorest people in the community I serve, and in others around the country. As a local councillor for the Lane, I want to revisit this topic, talk to the staff and customers in these shops and figure out what can be done. Although after the close call last night, I might go back at earlier hours.
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.