Phil Prentice: Sniffy middle-class forget that betting shops help keep town centres alive

While other shops move out of town, bookmakers have remained loyal to the  high street while contributing hundreds of millions of pounds and thousands of jobs to the economy, says Phil Prentice. Picture: Ian Georgeson.
While other shops move out of town, bookmakers have remained loyal to the high street while contributing hundreds of millions of pounds and thousands of jobs to the economy, says Phil Prentice. Picture: Ian Georgeson.
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One of the many misconceptions surrounding betting shops is that they draw money out of our towns and city ­centres.

It’s the kind of myth perpetuated by middle class idealists (dare I say, elitists) who imagine a perfect high street of craft shops, wine bars and artisan bakeries.

Phil Prentice, Chief Officer, Scotland's Towns Partnership

Phil Prentice, Chief Officer, Scotland's Towns Partnership

One proponent of this myth is an organisation called Landman ­Economics. Last year, they produced a report which argued that money spent in bookmakers is money lost to the wider economy. It’s a report which is often used to bash the ­bookies by commercial rivals.

At Scotland’s Towns Partnership, the leading advocate for town centre regeneration, we work closely with bookmakers and the Association of British Bookmakers in Scotland as core partners because we see ­bookmakers as one of the anchors of our town centres.

Landman see things differently. Their report argues that, while £1 ­billion of average consumer spending supports around 21,000 jobs across the UK, £1 billion of expenditure on gaming machines in betting shops (FOBTs) supports only 4,500 jobs. Thus, in their analysis, an increase of £1billion in spending on FOBTs destroys just over 16,000 jobs in the UK.

Landman base their case on the assumption that each set of four FOBTs supports just one full-time job. In reality, FOBTs are part of a mix of products in betting shops which, collectively, help to support an ­average of five jobs per shop.

The Landman report also ignores the substantial direct and indirect contribution betting shops make to the wider economy. Betting shops employ 52,000 people, more than the rest of the gambling sector ­combined.

Those staff invest their wages in the local community which, in turn, helps support other retailers and service providers. Unlike other forms of gambling, such as lotteries, bookmakers manage a huge retail estate, with around 8,700 shops across the UK. Each shop contributes around £122,000 in taxes and business rates, supporting both the national and regional economy.

Collectively, betting shops contribute more than £1 billion to the ­public purse, and around £270 million in support of horseracing, an industry which itself sustains around 17,400 full time equivalent jobs and generates £3.45 billion for the UK economy.

How we forget the impact of the financial crisis on town centres. That tumultuous period saw a huge contraction in the retail ­sector, with many familiar high street names going to the wall, and a crippling downturn in the property market, both residential and commercial. At the same time, the public sector began to disinvest in town centres, resulting in the closure of museums, libraries and galleries, all traditional footfall generators.

Against this backdrop, it’s difficult to see bookmakers – often unfairly derided as a blight – as anything other than a boost for the high street.

In the good days, bookies went unnoticed because the high street was much more diverse. With the collapse in the retail sector and the shift toward the edge of town, the bookmaker has become more ­visible, often a point of criticism from ­politicians. They forget that these facilities have been in these communities for generations, paying rent and rates, employing local ­people, providing a community hub where people can gamble safely and responsibly and, crucially, supporting other local businesses. Studies have shown that customers who ­visit the local bookmaker then spend another £20 in nearby shops.

Middle-class idealists (and ­presumably Landman Economics) may believe that a betting shop ­customer, deprived of his local bookie, will take his stake money to the local boulangerie or coffee shop instead. Some may, but I think it is not unreasonable to assume much of the stake money will be spent on areas yielding low levels of local employment, such as lotteries, scratchcards and amusement arcades.

People will always gamble. Provided there is ­support for those who get into ­difficulty, and this is an area where bookies take the lead, then the ­presence of betting shops on the high street should not be a cause for alarm.

Those in Government who demand a purge on gaming machines cannot take the high moral ground when they benefit from the National ­Lottery. Bookies have been a fixture of our towns for six decades. When many retailers moved out of town centres, the bookmaker remained loyal. In doing so, they helped encourage people back into our town centres and provided a vital economic stimulus for the rest of the retail sector. Those who call for a clampdown on bookies should consider the consequences for jobs, investment and the future of our town centres.

Phil Prentice is chief officer of Scotland’s Towns Partnership.