07 February 2012

Odds-on, there's a better way to deal with this.

Betting shops, it seems, are the latest target for those concerned about our high streets:
I'm a councillor in Southwark where there are already 77 betting shops. As small shops shut in the downturn, bookies are opening in their place.  And this story is being repeated across the UK. 

But at the moment, local councils can’t control the number of betting shops in their community because they’re classified in the same way as banks, estate agents and restaurants.

We have a rare chance to change that. Mary Portas (also known as Queen of Shops) recently published a review of the high street and recommended giving local people new powers to limit the number of bookies in their communities. I'm campaigning for the Government to accept the recommendation.

Right now, the Government is deciding how to respond, promising to report back by May. If enough people speak out, they will be forced to reclassify betting shops. 

There’s nothing wrong with responsible gambling, but too many bookies encourage poverty traps and crowd out other small businesses. Changing the classification would let local residents decide if they want more betting shops in their area. 

Like the charity GRASP (Gambling Reform & Society Perception), I believe it's critical that the Government reclassify betting shops so local people can control the number in their area. I hope everyone that agrees will add their name to the campaign.

Local democracy should be a principle, not a gamble. Our high streets don’t deserve anything less.

While the local democracy principles invoked here are noble ones, which I fully support, I can't help thinking that a major point is being missed.

This is the key part of the argument above: 
"local councils can’t control the number of betting shops in their community because they’re classified in the same way as banks, estate agents and restaurants."
If shops and restaurants face the same (lack of) barriers to establishment as betting shops, then why aren't there "enough" of the former, if there are "too many" of the latter?

Even though I'm familiar with the inside of a betting shop or two, I can't claim expertise on bookmaker business models. However, I'd bet that their overheads are nowhere near those of retail or hospitality units, and that their red tape is considerably less as well.

If we think that bookies have too many negative externalities (which, personally, I'd dispute) then one solution is, indeed, to allow regulation against them to rise. Alternatively, if shops and restaurants have positive (or at least more welcome) externalities, then we could reduce regulation on them.

The question that local councillors are asking should not be "why oh why are there too many bookies?". It should be "why oh why aren't there more cafes/delis/artisanal hessian cobblers/etc?".

Remember, the High Street Bookmaker is under the same pressures as any other business: mainly (though not limited to) the economic downturn and competition from internet-based alternatives. Yet, according to arguments such as those above, they are thriving and "crowding out" other businesses.

The belief, then, is that if you stop bookies setting up shop then other, "better" businesses will automatically take the space, physically and economically.

But what is stopping the supposedly more welcome traders and outlets from doing this already? 

Local councillors' time should also be spent talking to local would-be entrepreneurs about the barriers they face, and then doing something about those. That will no doubt expose a clash between market entry and issues such as high business rates, draconian parking regimes and other costly (both in time and money) regulations. But it would lay out a more (#BannedList klaxon) sustainable pathway to diverse high streets* than trying to pick winners before the fact.

*Let's not also forget that 'diversity', when applied to high streets, can just mean 'more expensive' and 'worse service'. Shops that poorer people use don't face local competition and prices are not driven down, while the appreciation of custom falls. And, yes, that's true of bookies as much as shoe shops, through the use of refund mechanisms and other conditions in bets.

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