A new campaign wants locals to be given powers to limit the number of betting shops on their streets.
Betting shops are now more common than post offices, libraries and newsagents on some high streets in our poorest areas. As businesses shut in the downturn, more bookmakers are opening in their place. They play to people’s faith in brute luck rather than effort, they tempt addiction, and they are beyond the control of local democracy.
I’m not against responsible gambling. I gamble myself. But my constituency in Southwark is one of the most deprived areas in London and has 77 bookmakers (I pass ten on my walk to the train station every morning) while Hackney has 64. As councillors we get complaints about bookies “taking over the high street” and putting off other businesses from moving in. Brave colleagues like Claire Hickson have spoken out but we have no meaningful way of stemming the tide.
High Streets First is a new campaign designed to change all that. We have a rare opportunity to make a difference. An independent review from Mary Portas has recommended giving councils new powers to limit the number of bookmakers on their streets. The government is now deciding whether to accept that recommendation, promising to report back by May. If we want the government to say yes, we need to make some noise.
Currently bookmakers have it frighteningly easy. They can open up in the same premises as a bank, estate agent, job centre or restaurant without a change in planning permission. In her review into British high streets, Portas recommended changing the “use class” of bookies, giving local councils the chance to limit the growth of new outlets.
The independent gambling reform group Grasp is helping to lead the campaign. David Lammy, MP for Tottenham, has endorsed us from the left and Tory councillors including David Parsons, chair of the LGA environment committee, support reform from the right. The Local Government Association, Joan Ruddock MP, Harriet Harman MP, local councillors, charities and residents are all calling for change, and we’re backed by Change.org and all the major progressive blogs.
And there’s one other reason to support High Streets First. It has a good chance of winning. What we’re asking for is tangible, specific and it seems consistent with the government’s rhetoric on pushing power downwards. As a first step, sign the petition and invite Eric Pickles to agree.
Local democracy should be a principle, not a gamble. Our high streets don’t deserve anything less.
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.