I keep trying to get off the subject of gambling, but when so much is said about the industry that is either illogical or merely places the blame for other issues at its door, it’s hard to resist putting a counter case.
Take, for example, the comments of the Local Government Association representative who told MPs in the second DCMS Select Committee session yesterday that “at the moment, numbers [of betting shops on the High Street] cannot be restricted and this results in crime, disorder and misery for local people.” Or the Deputy Labour leader, Harriet Harman, who yesterday published a report claiming the industry uses “predatory” practices that are “destroying” neighbourhood shopping areas.
To say that the proliferation of betting shops in some areas is what is causing crime and misery would be disgraceful if it wasn’t so obviously stupid. Admittedly, I never cease to be amazed by how many of the same sort of shop can be supported in any one place (within half a mile of my house, there are 11 estate agents, which presumably all make a living) but the fact that they can doesn’t make them predatory: it demonstrates consumer demand and offers customers choice. People don’t shop in multiple betting outlets one after the other: they decide which shop they want to frequent on any given day for reasons of price, product, ambiance, or all three.
How many options they have tells you nothing about the social problems in this country, any more than a fall in the number of shops would tell you that things were on the up. Where I used to live, the only Turf Accountant has closed, while crime has gone up. What point am I supposed to make about that?
Ms. Harman’s statement that “there must be the right protection in place for our high streets and vulnerable communities” falls into the category of classic political waffle, best detected when you can’t find a person on the planet who would argue “no there shouldn’t”. Her ‘the lives of many of the people in those areas are also blighted by the problem gambling that [the High Street bookmaking shops] exacerbate’ is just as easily spotted as a point-scoring opportunity taken without any regard for the facts. I bet you a pound for a penny that Harriet Harman has not yet the first clue what betting operators do to combat problem gambling (given that she took this portfolio a month ago) nor indeed what the rates are in different areas, or whether the existence of four shops increases it over two.
But the acid test as to whether any part of what she said yesterday had been given any thought will come when she makes her first pronouncement about online gambling, whose growth is a certainty if the number of retail betting outlets is cut. Presumably she will be all in favour of it, rather than arguing that betting needs to take place in a social environment (rather than the privacy of someone’s home) if problem gambling is to be curbed. Time will tell.
One final thought: in the 100-yard walk between the bus stop and my house, there is what used to be a Tote and is now a smartly-rebranded Betfred, three off-licences, and three curry houses. That means that along that stretch, just about the only types of retail outlet that I have never heard associated in some way with anti-social behaviour are an optician and a hairdresser.
Does that explain why someone broke into my car last night?