They say the bookie always wins. But the old adage is being severely tested in the wake of the UK Government’s decision to reduce stakes on gaming machines in betting shops to £2 a spin.
Betting shops and their suppliers are currently working to adjust to the changes in advance of their implementation. But forecasts suggest that there will be a significant impact on the future of the local bookie.
Scotbet, Scotland’s largest independent bookmaker recently announced the closure of five of their 47 shops, with the future of six more in the balance. In England, an independent chain of 10 betting shops has ceased trading and William Hill has warned that 900 of its shops are at risk of closure. Betting shop numbers have been falling for a number of years but this decline will accelerate when FOBT stakes are cut. Scotbet forecasts its estate will fall to 24 shops, from 75 shops five years ago.
The economic impact of such decline is obvious. More empty shops on our already struggling high streets. Thousands of jobs lost. Councils with less money to spend on essential public services. But there is a wider cost to the community.
Over the summer, I visited dozens of shops across Scotland, from Barrhead to Bonnyrigg, Cumnock to Cupar, Inverness to Inverurie, meeting staff to find out more about how they support their local communities and, crucially, their customers. Everywhere I travelled, I met dedicated, well trained staff who work hard to ensure their customers gamble within their means.
It was also telling how many staff were active in their community. Earlier this year, the Association of British Bookmakers (ABB) launched a Community Betting Shop of the Year Award to celebrate the community activism of our staff.
I’ve previously written about the incredible fundraising work being done by staff in Dunoon, Johnstone and Selkirk – the three finalists in our competition – but they’re not the exceptions, they’re the norm. Visit any betting shop and you will meet staff who volunteer or fundraise for local charities or host social events for older people.
“I’ve always believed it to be important to give something back, and I firmly believe it’s this passion for the local community that makes for such a nice atmosphere in the shop,” said Andy Bennett, co-manager of Scotbet’s popular Selkirk shop, one of the finalists in our community competition.
Andy and his team work hard to create a warm, welcoming environment for everyone. “Often, we’ll have older people walk into the shop just for a coffee and a blether with staff and customers. They might not even spend very much, but they enjoy the company. I worry about what will happen to people like that as more and more shops close. Many of them don’t have anyone else to talk to.”
The close relationship between betting shop staff and customers was evident this summer as ABB Scotland and William Hill launched an awareness and fundraising campaign in support of Prostate Cancer UK.
Every year, around 3,000 men in Scotland are diagnosed with the disease and, sadly, almost 1,000 die. These deaths can be avoided if the disease is detected and treated early enough. That was the motivation for our campaign – to prevent more needless deaths by training shop staff to talk to at-risk customers and encourage them to go to their GP if they have any of the tell tale symptoms. We already know of one customer who did so, was diagnosed, and is now receiving treatment.
As well as signposting customers to their GP, staff have also been actively fundraising in support of the charity, with a crack team recently climbing Ben A’an in the Trossachs and others braving not one but four charity Kiltwalks.
ABB Scotland, William Hill and Ladbrokes have also been working with Bob Doris MSP in support of the White Ribbon Scotland campaign which aims to stamp out domestic violence against women.
In just one week, betting shop staff had encouraged more than 700 customers in Maryhill and Springburn to sign the White Ribbon pledge never to ‘commit, condone or remain silent about violence against women in all its forms,’ a remarkable achievement and a further reminder that bookies can and do make a positive contribution in their community.
It seems certain that shop numbers in Scotland will fall in the coming years, impacting not only staff but their customers, many of them socially isolated. But, whatever happens in the years ahead, you can bet that colleagues like Andy Bennett will retain their sense of civic duty. They are, and always will, be an essential part of their local community.
Donald Morrison, Scottish media & public affairs, ABB Scotland.