Gambling for the masses


British cities punt to build the country’s largest casino.

VISITORS to London’s Globe Theatre can be forgiven for thinking they are celebrating all that was great in Elizabethan England. But while Shakespeare’s orations and drama may have graced the theatre, it was also used as a bear pit, brothel and gambling house.

London’s response was to blame theatres for society’s debaucheries and in 1596 the city banned the public performance of plays. Four centuries later the circle has turned and the government now sees gambling as a business to be encouraged. Seven British cities are furiously bidding against one another for the privilege of being allowed to license the country’s first super-casino, each one trying to argue that it is more socially deprived than the rest and that it has a worthier plan to use gambling as a catalyst for regeneration.

On January 30th the government-appointed Casino Advisory Panel will recommend which cities should have the right to build 16 medium and large casinos and one super-casino. Many expect the new super-casino to go either to Blackpool (the clear favourite of punters on Betfair, a betting exchange) or to Greenwich, a London borough which has a tenuous claim to being especially needy but is home to the embarrassingly underemployed Millennium Dome (now known as the O2).

Blackpool argued in its bid that a casino would create up to 3,400 jobs, stimulate as much as £450m in investment and attract more than 5m visitors a year to the crumbling Victorian town, which has struggled to stem a decline in tourist numbers over the past two decades. Many reckon that it has the stronger bid because without some such development Blackpool seems destined for increasingly dingy decay. If selected, the town has promised to create a conference centre and rebuild a third of its run-down city centre.

Greenwich, for its part, reckons a casino at the O2 dome will be the linchpin for a £600m investment in shops, hotels and gambling facilities and create as many as 5,000 jobs. But many suspect that Greenwich’s real appeal is that it will save the government the bother and expense of sprucing up the neighbourhood for the 2012 Olympic games. Its bid has also been mired in political controversy since it emerged that John Prescott, the deputy prime minister, had been entertained at the ranch of the dome’s American developer, Philip Anschutz.

Both cities have plausible bids, which means the decision is likely to be contested. Lawyers across London are already sharpening their appeals. This is partly because the government bowed to pressure from the anti-gambling lobby and scaled back its initial plans to allow eight super-casinos. In doing so it is creating a monopoly which will add greatly to the value of the single licence. Moreover, the regeneration criteria on which it is being awarded are vague enough to give even the dullest lawyer grounds for appeal.

If the government escapes an appeal on the award, it still faces public opposition. Almost 70% of people surveyed by ICM in 2004 opposed super-casinos. Although the numbers have bobbed around since then, most still disapprove.

Critics argue that although casinos elsewhere provide employment and a net economic benefit, they can also increase the incidence of compulsive gambling and local deprivation. Mark Griffiths, a professor of gambling studies at Nottingham Trent University, warns that although problem gambling in Britain is low at present (less than 1% of adults suffer from it), the rate is likely to rise as casinos open. Gerda Reith, a sociologist at Glasgow University, cites an American study which found that living within 50 miles of a casino doubled the risk of becoming a gambling addict.

Besides, those most at risk of becoming addicted are those that the government is already most concerned about: low-income, ill-educated drinkers and smokers from poor areas. Jobless people around Greenwich or Blackpool may be as likely to lose their shirts gambling in casinos as they are to get jobs in them.

That would be a bad reason to block the new casinos, but it should encourage the government to come clean. Casinos, like Shakespearean plays, can be fun. But expecting them to provide a cost-free solution to the country’s economic ills is asking too much.

From Internet Gambling Guide /

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