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Bookies set for dramatic boom on high street 12/1/2008
Patrick Collinson

The number of betting shops on Britain's high streets is on the verge of a dramatic expansion following a relaxation in licensing rules as part of the Gambling Act, which came into force in September.
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The smaller betting chains have begun submitting applications for hundreds of high street licences now that magistrates can no longer block new outlets from opening. Touch-screen roulette and blackjack machines - dubbed "crack cocaine" for problem gamblers - have also transformed the profitability of the shops, with each terminal earning about £25,000 a year in profit.

The new act has swept away restrictions which allowed magistrates to reject an application if demand was already met by existing betting shops. In September licensing passed to local authorities, with the act prescribing limited grounds on which permission can be refused.

Fred Done, owner of BetFred, which plans to open at least 80 shops this year, said: "The changes in legislation have obviously made it easier for us to open shops without much opposition, as bookmakers already established in areas used to object and claim there was not enough demand for another bookmaker in a particular area." BetterBet, a London chain with 25 outlets, said it planned to open about 175 new shops.

The growth in betting outlets is fiercely opposed by action groups concerned about the impact on communities. In the London borough of Haringey, activist Peter Lorimer is fighting applications for two new betting shops on a 300-metre strip of high street which already has five outlets. "More betting shops are the last thing we need in this area," he said. "There are a lot of vulnerable people around here on low incomes or benefits. Why can't we have bookshops rather than bookies?"

The Gambling Commission said there were currently about 8,800 betting shops in Britain. According to the commission's figures, about £91.5bn was spent by Britons on gambling in 2006, the last year for which figures are available. It said that about 68% of the population gambled, although the figures include sales of National Lottery tickets. Addiction levels between 1999 and 2007, however, have remained static at 0.5% of the population, about 250,000 people. But it revealed that one in nine people who played touch-screen roulette were classified as addictive or problem gamblers, the strongest link in any form of gambling.

The British Medical Association has called for tighter controls on slot-machine gambling because of its effect on younger people in particular.
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