One newspaper article from 1959 quotes estimates of up to 1,100 operating north of the Border, ranging from “very well appointed” to “pretty mean and dingy” establishments.
Malcolm George, chief executive of the Association of British Bookmakers (ABB), says legalisation and regulation have made today’s off-course shops “a great environment in which to gamble”, but their numbers are in decline. Interestingly, there are 996 high street bookmakers in Scotland today, which is less than those believed to have been in operation before the original Betting and Gaming Act came into force.
The rise of online gambling is in large part to blame, as are other factors that have come to bear on all high street establishments. A recent report commissioned by the ABB from accountants KPMG suggests that nearly one in five of the UK’s remaining bookmakers will close by 2020 if current conditions prevail.
Meanwhile, law-makers at various levels are debating new restrictions on high-stakes fixed odds terminals such as roulette machines that are becoming an increasingly important part of the revenue mix for high street bookies. MSPs are set to gain new licensing powers over these machines under the Scotland Act, which is part of the reason why the ABB is looking to appoint its first-ever full-time agent in Scotland.
“This is an industry under threat, and we are increasing the resources we devote to Scotland, both in terms of consultancy support and the addition of a full-time representative,” says George, who joined the ABB from IT group Dell in July of last year.
After studying economics and international relations at the University of Warwick, George spent eight years as a foreign exchange dealer in the City, latterly working with Deutsche Bank. He went into lobbying and consultancy in 1991, working for a number of firms before joining Electronic Data Systems, the US multinational originally founded by former Republican presidential contender Ross Perot.
“It was under different ownership by my time, but the culture Ross Perot instilled was still there,” George says. “It was very much focused on client service and getting the job done.”
EDS became part of Hewlett-Packard in 2008, with George taking responsibility for government relations across Europe, the Middle East and Africa. It was at this point that he started travelling extensively, learning about the nuances of lobbying in foreign countries. He left to join HP’s biggest rival, Dell, in 2011. The roles were quite similar, but the new job added regions such as India and Southeast Asia to his remit.
As at EDS, George appreciated the culture that spread from founder Michael Dell at the top throughout the rest of the company. However, he eventually came to long for a different type of professional challenge.
“As a senior executive in a very large organisation like that, you start not doing the core function that you really enjoyed,” he explains. “You start managing other people who are doing various things, and that was the case at Dell.”
With the ABB, George now works on behalf of roughly 8,800 betting shops across the UK ranging from those run by market leaders such as William Hill and Coral down to individual independents. In Scotland, over-the-counter betting remains the dominant form of shop income by a split of roughly 60 to 40. But the general trend has been a slow decline of the traditional flutter while gambling machines have held relatively stable, which has turned that ratio on its head in other parts of the UK.
The ABB is therefore keeping a keen eye on the drive in England for further curbs on fixed odds betting terminals, or FOBTs. Concerns about FOBTs have also been raised north of the Border, where the Scottish Parliament is gaining new powers to authorise and control the number of machines where the maximum charge is more than £10.
“We acknowledge that the reason gambling is regulated is that there can be an element of social harm,” George says.
“But the interesting thing is that with the development of online gambling and the arrival of fixed odds betting machines some 12 years ago, there has been no increase in problem gambling. The truth is there is no evidence of increased harm.”
Born: 1963, Liverpool.
Education: Calday Grange Grammar School; University of Warwick.
First job: General administration in a steel firm.
Ambition at school: To do something I would be happy doing.
Can’t live without: BrewDog’s Punk IPA. I think they are a fabulous company, and I love the beer.
Kindle or book: Book.
Favourite city: Paris.
Preferred mode of transport: Living in London, it would have to be the Tube. It is very efficient, even if it is not always comfortable.
What car do you drive: An Audi.
What makes you angry: The misuse of statistics, and the creation of false statistics.
What inspires you: Doing things that benefit others.
Best thing about your job: Winning the argument. It can happen in one-on-one conversations, or it can happen in the media.