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West councils "need power" to tackle crack cocaine of gambling

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: February 02, 2014

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Westcountry councils should be handed new powers to tackle the “blight” of betting shops spreading across high streets.

The Local Government Association (LGA) said the licensing system could be reformed to give authorities new powers to stop bookies being “clustered” in town centres.

The LGA, which represents 370 councils in Wales and England, said the public wanted to see fewer betting shops, but authorities faced restrictive planning and licensing systems.

The call came after the Western Morning News last month revealed some £950 million was being staked annually on high-rolling roulette machines at bookmakers’ shops across the region.

“Councils aren’t anti-bookies but need powers to tackle the damage that can be caused to high streets and town centres by the clustering of betting shops,” Tony Page, the LGA’s licensing spokesman, said.

“Planning and licensing controls are supposed to ensure new shops or business will benefit an area but the current system is preventing councils from acting on community concerns.

“The result is many of our high streets becoming saturated with betting shops and councils left powerless to act to limit the number opening up in their area.

“Licensing laws must be updated to allow councils to consider the impact a new betting shop would have on their local economy and existing businesses.

“This would protect the power of local communities and democratically-elected councillors to shape their area.”

The LGA said the number of betting shops in some areas had doubled in the past decade.

In an interview in The Racing Post, William Hill boss Ralph Topping said he was against “betting shop clustering on social grounds”. He said a “cumulative impact” could be applied for new premises.

Betfred chief executive Fred Done said he was in favour of a joint gambling industry and LGA taskforce “to examine how bookmakers, local authorities and communities interact”.

In the Westcountry, councillors have already expressed concerns at planning reforms made by the Government, as part of its growth agenda.

Councillor Brian Greenslade, the Lib-Dem leader of North Devon Council, backed the LGA’s call.

He said: “In general, I very much feel that local authorities should have more freedom from Government to do as they see fit for their communities.”

New light was shone on the extent of gambling in the region last month as figures showed punters were wagering bets worth more than £2.6 million every day of the year on so-called Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs).

Players can stake up to £100 every 20 seconds on the touch-screen machines, which offer casino games and have been dubbed the “crack cocaine of gambling” by critics.

There are 644 FOBTs in Cornwall, Devon, Somerset and Dorset, spread across 177 bookmakers, according to the Campaign for Fairer Gambling.

It has been lobbying the Government to introduce restrictions on the content and operation of FOBTs.

Responding to the LGA’s call for powers to restrict the spread of betting shops, a Government spokesman said: “Local authorities already have a range of powers available to tackle any localised problems. These can be used to target specific areas where the cumulative impact of betting shops is becoming unacceptable.

“Taken together with powers under the Gambling Act to tackle individual premises, councils have a powerful set of tools with which to address any problems where they arise.”

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