thoughts on our urban future

Vice Uses, Part 1

Typical High Street Betting Shop

Last week the BBC ran a segment on the prevalence of betting shops in low-income neighborhoods.  I was interested to see that the journalist was presenting his segment from my very own neck of the woods in Hackney where betting shops abound.  Currently I believe there are 9 betting shops within a 5 minute walk of my house, the most recent having opened about three months ago.  According to the LGA, as of this summer:

Hackney has 64 betting shops which is three times the national average for a local authority area.  At the same time the borough has areas of significant deprivation and a mapping of the location of these shops reveals that they cluster in the poorer areas of the borough.

Actually, by September Hackney had 70 betting shops.  Gambling is legal in the UK and governed by the Gambling Act 2005 which relaxed many licensing laws.  The LDA makes an articulate argument for the better local control and regulation of betting shops, although it avoids some of the touchier issues.

It’s impossible not to come to the conclusion that betting shops are located in, and continue to open in, poorer areas because they are doing good business there.  And it is difficult to accept that people who do not have much money are clearly the primary clientele.  It’s also fair to assume that the betting shops are doing well, which means they are taking in much more money than they are giving out, making them a parasite on poor neighborhoods.  So why isn’t the government doing a better job at regulating these shops?

Certainly the regulation is not there and local councils have very little control under the current legislation.  But there are probably other problems as well.  In low-income areas many of the high streets are suffering.  Walk down many of these once vibrant shopping districts and now it’s pound shop, chicken shop, pub, betting shop, wig shop, off license, and betting shop.  These are not the places they once were.  It’s reasonably to assume that there is not enough market interest or support for other types of shops.  It is also reasonable to assume that in areas of low demand, rents are also going to be lower.

So what is better?  A vacant store, a run down struggling store, or a betting shop?  The landlords probably prefer the betting shops who come in, redecorate, and are willing to pay the rent.  But clearly the dearth of betting shops is not good for the community, either financially or in terms of character and sense of place.  This is precisely why the government should be stepping in.  Because place making and strategic community/neighborhood development planning requires taking a bigger picture view, and understanding the wider implications and nuances.

I’m not saying there shouldn’t be any betting shops, just not as many as there seem to be now.  Of course, the counter argument to this is that if the market supports them, then is it right for the government to step in, potentially upsetting landlords profits and the betting companies business, for a bigger social purpose?  How do you decide how many betting shops is the right number for an area?  And who gets to decide?  It’s easy to feel that there are too many and that something should be done, but it isn’t nearly as easy to work out how to fairly and democratically determine what that thing that should be done is.

Part of me feels it’s a cop out to leave this up to local communities, although perhaps local communities are the best place to self regulate what is right for them.  I would have thought a national standard of betting shops per population might be a better way to go.  I would be afraid that without strong leadership in every community, the betting shops would simply target the weak or unorganized.  Or maybe they’d even get their own members on the local council.  I’d rather see a strong national policy as  a starting point with the potential for local variation.  This might be a way to have the local control without letting any place slip through the cracks.

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  1. While I understand the focus on betting shops, what about the bigger issue of local versus national (or international) chains? This is an issue that includes betting shops and their lack of investment in their local communities, as well as nearly every high street in the UK.

    • Is that endemic only to betting shops however or a larger problem in regard to national (and international) chains? I suppose one could argue with a chain store which is less contentious they are better contributing to the local environment by being a use that is more acceptable or even desired, but they are still unlikely to be putting back local investment. I’m not sure you can call out betting shops on this specifically, and it speaks much more to a larger issue about the homogenization of shopping areas and the associated side effects in general I think.

  2. Two important issues there, both about social responsibilities – and big business.
    Where do we draw the line between market gain and people’s responsibility to contribute positively to society? I have never placed a bet in my life so I hardly see the point of betting shops, but that’s just me. Others may see them somewhere along the same lines of going to the pub, plus you have the possibility of actually winning money from this activity. Maybe it does make sense.
    I guess we could easily relate the issue here with ‘The Big Society‘ the government is championing. Perhaps it should be the communities themselves who determine how many betting shops is enough. What I wonder is who do I mean by the community? There may be a community of people in Hackney who would like to see no betting shops at all, whilst another may be all for the freedom of being able to bet as much as they want. Those communities will not necessarily be aware of the consequences of – in this case betting shops, but we could be talking about anything here, supermarkets, pound shops, etc – particular types of shops or establishments on the streetscape and ultimately on how we all perceive a place. Communities are complex constructs often made of different groups of people, who have different interests and priorities – even more so in urban contexts. Maybe we should indeed be encouraging to get more involved in issues like this one – but how?

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