Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Local councils have no power to regulate how many betting shops pop up or where, and the numbers have gotten out of hand.
Is London really just Las Vegas with more rain and old stuff? Walking down the average neighborhood main street in London nowadays, you might be forgiven for thinking so. Average shopping streets in the city—and across the U.K. – have become so thick with gambling spots recently that it’s now much easier to put money on a horse than, say, buy a screwdriver. To give you an example of the scale of their spread, the London borough of Newham has no less than 80 betting shops (places where you can bet on horse or dog races or sports events), with 18 of them on one street alone. Not everyone is pleased that the U.K. is becoming that classic oxymoron: A gambler’s paradise. This week, North London locals are fighting to stop an old pub from being turned into yet another betting shop—a battle that precedent suggests they’re destined to lose. Still, the story of the creeping advance of gambling dens across British cities is not one of a national addiction per se. It’s really the consequence of a regeneration plan gone wrong.
Gambling isn’t new to Britain, of course. It’s always been a tolerated part of British culture, where prohibitionists of all stripes have never gained the purchase they have at times achieved in the U.S. The late queen mother was said to enjoy a flutter on the horses, and while that myth has been debunked, it shows the extent of gambling’s social acceptability. In Britain, you can bet on almost anything. If any major event is on the horizon—a sports championship, an election, the birth of a royal baby— you can be sure that someone will open a book on the result. Right now, the bookmaker company Paddy Power is taking bets on who murdered Lucy Beale (a character in the TV soap Eastenders), on who might win Ireland’s Rose of Tralee beauty contest, and on who will play Holden Caulfield in the movie adaptation of Catcher in the Rye.
Officialdom has actively encouraged this. In 2005 the Labour government stripped casinos of their obligatory membership requirement, starting the gradual development of supercasinos. You’re now never very far from a poker table or roulette wheel in any British city. Most of the action still happens in betting shops, which now include high-stakes gambling machines that can swallow your savings in just a few gulps.
Betting shops have spread like fire through dry brush in the U.K. because of botched recession-recovery plans. Across Britain, retail shops in town centers have been boarded up, losing business to Internet shopping, to big-box retailers on urban fringes, and to reined-in spending habits. Last year, the government hatched a plan to revive these streets. It would loosen planning regulations, so that no one had to apply for change-of-use permission before opening a new business. Displaying a wealthy metropolitan bias typical of British governments of all stripes, the government imagined that a new breed of restaurants and cafés would pop up to lure people back to shop in these denuded strips.
That didn’t happen. Instead of chic dangling filament light bulbs and wood-fired pizza ovens, Britain’s cities mainly got a truckload of gambling dens and payday loan shops. No effective legal framework remained to keep them in check. The new law has more or less abolished the rights of local councils to control what is opened on their patches, and the result is street after street of gambling spots. In the Tooting neighborhood of South London, for example, there are 23 betting shops. The local council tried to prevent the opening of a 24th, but lost the battle in the courts.
These betting shops remain open because people are using them, of course. I’ve been one of these people on occasion—I love greyhounds, though not one of them has yet repaid my affection by winning a race I’d bet on them for. Still, even if you don’t believe in banning gambling, no neighborhood needs 23 betting shops. It’s no coincidence that these places sprout primarily in deprived areas, preying on people’s hopes for easy fixes. Bookmaking firms claim that their establishments draw people into an area to shop at other places and thus boost the economy, but there’s no clearer sign of an area’s desperation than these shops attacking a high street like the retail equivalent of the Bloody Flux. Until councils get the right to halt their spread, things are unlikely to change. I could always see a betting shop from my narrow kitchen window. As of two weeks ago, I can now see two.