The Portas Review, released this week, set out a vision for strengthening, supporting and developing British high streets. A crucial element of this review focused on the need to give communities greater say in how their high streets are developed, their look and feel and sorts of services they offer. This has clear resonance to the localism agenda but raises important questions about how to balance (potentially conflicting) viewpoints from different community sectors – in short, how do you decide which sectors’ voice is most important?
Looking at one particular sector, the gambling industry, highlights just some of the challenges of implementing this agenda. Since the Gambling Act 2005 was introduced, whereby gambling operators no longer had to demonstrate that there was unmet demand in order to be granted a license to operate in a area, there has been an increasing number of local debates about apparent clustering of gambling venues in particular high streets. Just last month, Harriet Harman released a report arguing that betting shops were blighting the high street and that this dominance needed to be addressed so that high streets and vulnerable communities were protected. The industry, however, states that whilst customer demand plays an important role in where businesses are located, so too does local infrastructure issues like commercial property rates and zoning.
Our research with Geofutures into the location and density of gambling machines illustrates the complexity of these issues. This showed that areas with a larger number of gambling machines tended to be those of greater socio-economic deprivation. But the pattern was not universal; some relatively affluent areas including new towns or satellite towns to major cities had higher densities of gambling machines. To understand this distribution in more detail, you really need to look at both the demand side factors and the infrastructure and economic diversification of these areas – in short, what other recreational, leisure and retail offers are available in high density machine areas, and how are gambling provisions complementing (or not) this existing offer?
Evidence from the British Gambling Prevalence Survey shows that people have contradictory views about gambling. On the whole, attitudes to gambling are negative but, somewhat contrarily, the majority of people gamble, even if it’s just taking part in the lottery. For many, gambling is a leisure pursuit which people have the right to do if they want, but the majority also thinks there are too many gambling opportunities available. The question is how should these contradictory attitudes be translated into what we see on our high streets? What is appropriate and whose voice should be given greater weight when making these decisions?
As debate turns to how we want our high streets to look and feel and empowering communities to have greater say in this, it’s worth noting that the Local Government Association state that currently they have limited powers to prevent clustering of gambling venues in a locality. Therefore, if community voices are to really have any power in this debate there are a number of political, regulatory, economic and legal issues that firstly need to be considered.