I was spurred to action when a licensing application was submitted in my ward for what would be the 25th betting shop in Manchester city centre.
No longer are betting shops a place to go to put a flutter on the horses or the football. The primary use of these betting shops has fast become gaming via fixed odds betting terminals – roulette and casino gaming machines able to facilitate bets of up to £100 every 20 seconds, meaning it is possible to stake up to £18,000 an hour.
These machines – dubbed the ‘crack cocaine of gambling’ due to their highly addictive nature – crept in without anyone noticing. The Gambling Act 2005 limited each betting shop to four FOBTs, but bookies quickly learnt to leapfrog these regulations by opening up as many shops as possible in each area – a practice known as ‘clustering’.
A Department of Culture, Media and Sport scoping study for the UK Gambling Act 2005, published in 2007, concluded: ‘The international research evidence demonstrates that FOBTs possess the characteristics of those forms of gambling most associated with gambling problems, namely high event frequency and opportunities for rapid reinvestment.’
There has been no research in Great Britain specifically designed to estimate the costs of gambling related harm to society and the economy. However GamCare (a problem gambling charity funded by bookmakers) has estimated the costs of problem gambling at around £3.6 billion per year, based on an estimated average cost per problem gambler of over £8,000 per year (Grinois and Mustard, 2001) and using the 2010 British Gambling Prevalence Survey figure of 450,000 problem gamblers.
It is no coincidence that Manchester Central has one of the highest concentrations of betting shops in the country. Bookies open up in poor areas with high levels of unemployment – the 50 constituencies with the highest levels of unemployment in the UK (including Manchester Central) contain 1,251 betting shops with 4,454 FOBTs, while the 50 constituencies with the lowest levels of unemployment have only 287 betting shops and 1,045 terminals.
£190m was gambled away on FOBTs in Manchester Central last year. Significant numbers of the betting shops in Manchester city centre cluster around Chinatown. The big bookies – keen to exploit more customers – advertise their machines in Chinese outside. Inside you rarely see a vacant machine regardless of the time of day or night.
A recent survey by the Local Government Association concluded in their report that the toxic economy of betting shops, pawnbrokers and payday loan companies was deterring investment and stifling economic growth. Clyde Loakes, vice-chair of the LGA’s environment and housing board, was quoted as saying, ‘… councils believe that the clustering of premises such as betting shops, fast food outlets and strip clubs is hitting economic growth.’
This is a situation we do not want to see occurring in Manchester city centre.
And it’s not just the addictive gambling that causes problems. Greater Manchester police recorded 167 incidents against betting shops in Manchester city centre alone over the last 12 months, covering everything from rowdy behaviour to criminal damage, theft and assault.
I decided to do something about it.
I organised a public meeting for Labour party members and residents in Manchester Central and invited the leaders of the ‘Stop the FOBTs’ campaign. We agreed to mount an objection to the licence application on grounds of the primary use being gaming and not betting and contravention of the licensing objectives of preventing crime and disorder and protecting children and vulnerable people from harm.
I am calling on Manchester city council’s licensing committee to follow the lead of Newham council and reject this application.
Nationally, I am supporting the work of Lucy Powell MP and others to change the law to limit both the numbers of these machines to two per betting shop and bring down the maximum stake to £2 to bring them in line with fruit machines and prevent gambling addicts losing thousands of pounds in a matter of minutes.
I also believe we need to change the planning class of betting shops and give local authorities more scope to be able to reject applications based on the local situation. Localism should mean local decision making on these issues.
I say enough is enough. I am not anti-gambling or anti-bookies, but there is no place for high speed, high stakes, hardcore casino gaming in our area.
Kevin Peel is a councillor on Manchester city council and tweets @kevpeel
See also: Betting on failure, by Tom Greatrex MP
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