High street would be a poorer place without betting shops

Ladbrokes-360

Social issues are perceived to be directly linked to betting shops

 By Tom Kerr 12:05PM 25 NOV 2016 

TWO years ago the government unveiled a website for citizens to launch their own petitions, with the potential for a parliamentary debate if they hit 100,000 signatures. If you go on the official website you can browse the rejected efforts and, if you enjoy marvelling at what gets people irate, the list makes for entertaining reading.

There’s the demand, for example, that fish ’n’ chips be served in newspaper again (a potential Ukip policy platform if ever I saw one); an insistence that Emmerdale scrap the ‘dog theft storyline’ and make a public apology; a call for government to force Kate Bush to release the footage of certain live shows; a well-intentioned rant against ‘mordern [sic] day slavery’; and a stirring rallying call for Theresa May to ban Christmas decorations from going up before December 1, an illiberal move that I nevertheless think we can all get behind. Basically, whatever you feel strongly about, there’s probably already a petition about it.

I’ve always thought petitions were about as pointless as wasps (‘cull wasps’, argues one cogent petition) and as effective as Southern Rail (thousands of angry petitioners) so don’t make a habit of signing them when they come by. If I really care about an issue I prefer more direct action than petitions, such as moaning in the pub or daydreaming.

It would be fair to say then that I have not exactly been energised by the Association of British Bookmakers’ Back Your Local Bookie campaign, which is centred around a petition calling on the government to resist imposing punitive new regulations on betting shops and is, I think we can assume, destined to one day be carefully filed in a wheelie bin round the back of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

Part of my lack of enthusiasm is related to the fact that most bookies are owned by the big corporate beasts of the betting high street, who, whatever their merits or flaws, do not exactly have a special place in many hearts.

You might back a petition about Syria or the rainforest, but you’d hardly sign on the dotted line to support Cafe Nero or Starbucks, would you?

Greggs, maybe.

And then there is the actual regulation the campaign is trying to fend off, which is widely anticipated to be new restrictions on gaming machine stakes. This directly affects a very different portion of betting shop customers and is, anyway, tinged with the suspicion that those who do bet the maximum stakes currently available do so in an irresponsible manner, making the argument difficult to square with either self-interest or principles.

Time to speak up for betting

Yet recent months and years have left me to conclude that if those of us who do enjoy betting and bookmakers are not willing to speak up for them then certainly no one else will, and if that happens it is only a matter of time before betting shops begin vanishing from our high streets.

It often seems that on this topic the floor has been left almost entirely to those who would never darken the door of a bookmakers and imagine them to be a cross between an illegal Vietnamese gambling parlour and Fagin’s lair. They are a “blight on our high street” (Hackney mayor Jules Pipe) with a “predatory nature” (shadow home secretary Diane Abbott), cause “debt and misery” and are a “magnet for crime and antisocial behaviour” (both Roberta Blackman-Woods MP).

Some critics are motivated by addressing problem gambling or social issues they perceive as directly linked to betting shops, but plenty others simply see gambling of any description as anathema and everyone who indulges in it as a victim of the bookmakers’ peddling.

I’m not blind to the social problems gambling and betting shops can contribute to, such as addiction and debt. They are hardly unique on the high street in that respect. Almost identical charges can be laid at the door of bingo halls, off-licences and pubs. Yet they are not criticised in anything like the same manner as betting shops because, rightly, it is recognised that they provide a legitimate and valued service to their communities.

Of course, let’s not be naive – there are obviously bad betting shops. You know the ones, empty bar a nutter on the machines and some pundit on a TV that, like the ones in Orwell’s 1984, never shuts up. But there are many brilliant betting shops too, the ones with friendly staff and locals, where a natter and a cuppa can be enjoyed along with an afternoon punt. You’ll find them all over the country. One of them’s probably your local.

‘People enjoy the shops’

This week the latest Betting Shop Manager of the Year was crowned. This is an award that celebrates all that is good about the bookies – good service, good humour and pleasant surroundings. “People need to trust us,” said the winner, Robert Mabbett. “They need to know we’re doing a good job and actually a lot of people are enjoying their time with us.” It is too rare that side of betting shops is acknowledged.

The high street firms say that any restriction on gaming machine stakes will lead to betting shop closures all over the country, hence the drive to get us – their customers – to lobby government on their behalf. You might not enjoy the machines, it effectively says, but without them wave goodbye to your local betting shop.

Whether that is true or not we will only find out if government decides to impose new regulations. I’m still not convinced a petition will make any difference to its decision, and I hope that bookies will prove resilient even if machine stakes are restricted. But it would be a great shame if betting shops went the way of countless other stores and began disappearing from our towns and cities, leaving behind shuttered windows and peeling paint, another nail in the coffin of the high street.

 
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