Bashing the bookies, nudging the high street

An inanimate object belonging to the Ladbrokes in Lavender Hill has apparently  become “a symbol of defiance” against last month’s English urban riots. The Ladbrokes riot proof plasma tv screen valiantly, but inanimately, stood up to the sustained onslaught of a number of looters trying to prise it from the wall, an incident captured by Sky News.

According to the Ladbrokes press release (11th August) :  “a group called ‘Ladbrokes don’t f*** about when it comes to TV brackets’, which swiftly gained over 45,000 followers, was created after footage was shown of looters being unable to detach the television screen from the wall of the company’s Lavendar Hill shop, despite up to three people using their whole body strength by hanging off it.

 The footage, and the TV itself, quickly became iconic as a symbol of defiance against the criminals, […] a poll […] of several thousand votes, more than half have suggested auctioning the television for charity. Other suggestions included installing a blue plaque, nominating it as an official 2012 Olympic Torch Bearer, and putting it forward to replace Boris Johnson as the next Mayor of London.

Ladbrokes in Hackney

Amongst all the footage of destruction and violence it was noticeable that the brand names of many high street bookmakers were to be seen bobbing around in the background imagery of that week. Bookmakers (in stark distinction from bookshops) were seemingly targets in the riots. According to one report by the 3rd day of rioting and looting over 50 betting shops in London were attacked with Ladbrokes alone confirming that over 20 of their shops had been subject to violence. In report after report from different locations where the violence flared up bookmakers are identified as amongst the victims of the rioting. Whether bookies were attacked in some act of revenge by disgruntled punters or by opportunists who expected to steal cash from safes and gaming machines or simply smashing them up because they, at that time in that place, felt they could is moot. But given the clustering of bookmakers in deprived areas (which even the Association of British Bookmakers recognises has occurred in “some limited inner city locations”) the numbers looted and smashed up is perhaps explained as much by their visibility in the community and their location along main thoroughfares as by business occupation.

Burnt out and trashed William Hill, Tottenham - picture by Alan Stanton, Flickr

It is this visibility, this presence, as part of a redesign of their urban landscape that concerns of some residents of Tottenham. As Mark rightly highlights the production of ‘debtogenic landscapes’ is not confined to less wealthy neighbourhoods. In an era where technology increases the reach of not only ambient gambling opportunities but also an ambient consumption culture and access to lines of credit we are all subject to temptation and at risk of spending beyond our means in favour of short term gratification. Mark draws our attention to the “risk of (admittedly unwittingly) constructing a kind of irrational underclass, who are somehow unable to resist the temptation to gamble” though I argue that recognising that risk it remains important we interrogate the ways poverty and marginality play into the capital accumulation strategies of the wealthy.

High street shopping in the UK has declined as a result of the economic downturn, growth of internet shopping, the downsizing of national retail and banking chains and the diversification of supermarket trading into non-food sectors. Surveys by the Local Data Company and Ordnance Survey this year demonstrate increasing numbers of premises becoming vacant with building societies, pubs, estate agents and recruitment agencies all seeing dramatic falls in numbers since 2007 [NB: the data was disputed by building societies and bookies, nevertheless that high street vacancies are increasing is a finding in numerous surveys]. With the filling in of some of these sites, particularly in less wealthy districts by bookmakers, discount shops, charity shops and pawnbrokers the architecture and landscape of the high street has been changing and changing fast.

Like Mark I recently took a stroll down Tottenham High Road, this was before the riots. It was striking how obvious the clustering of betting shops there really is (there are 38 in the area). Popping in to a couple of bookies in Tottenham their function as leisure sites, as places for entertainment, social interaction and banter was obvious, as was their function as siphons of money from individuals, families and communities. However, Tottenham or Haringey Borough is illustrative rather than exceptional. Where Tottenham High Road has fifteen betting shops on it, Deptford has ten on or close to the High Street, Luton High Street has eight etc. And activists point to the lack of similar expansion into wealthier neighbourhoods. For example according to the Ladder Community Safety Partnership (representing neighbourhood watches and residents associations in Harringay) there is a clear targeting of betting shops “in the poorer areas of the borough and those with a known demographic which is more likely to gamble”. As a result the sixty six betting shops in the borough are clustered in much higher numbers (85%) in the poorer wards than in the wealthier ones (like Muswell Hill and Highgate). Similarly Hackney has 64 betting shops where again “a mapping of the location of these shops reveals that they cluster in the poorer areas of the borough”.

But the truths about bookies in the high street are contested. That they are a prominent element of contemporary urban architecture is not, but the extent to which this represents an exploitative expansion of gambling outlets or a relocation of business to markets where “demand is high” is. From the gambling industry side the case is far from clear:

  • overall numbers of bookies remains fairly static at about just under 9,000 with a number of (mainly independent) bookmakers going out of business,
  • the industry is in the midst of a period of reorganisation and takeovers and consolidation,
  • punters in the main make small manageable bets with only a few running into problems,
  • and the shift in revenue generation from over the counter betting to gaming machines (with over 30,000 ‘B2’ category machines – where you can bet upto £100 a game – they now account for over 50% of revenue) has changed both the costs and customer base for betting shops making competition for available gaming machine ‘punters’ fierce – hence the clustering (as Adi Smith describes in his reply to Mark below).

On the other side there are many community and political activists worried about:

  • the normalisation and penetration of gambling behaviours within their communities,
  • the proliferation of betting shops into communities that contain concentrations of vulnerable people and the gambling related harm that results,
  • and the wider context of a hollowing out and redesigning of welcoming vibrant community spaces – the local high street.

Now the location of things is a key component of the nudge mantra (fruit in school canteens for example). As Thaler and Sunstein note “the arrangement of settings is important to the choices consumers make. Behavior can be greatly influenced by small changes in the context. And the influence can be exercised for better or for worse” (LA Times, April 2nd 2008).

Until the 2005 Act all gambling in this country operated under the notion of “unstimulated demand” (i.e gambling was legal in particular places and could be offered as something people could do, but gambling companies could do nothing to encourage people to gamble, like advertise or allow the public to look in through their windows). One of the consequences of this was that betting shops had to demonstrate a local demand for their services. With the passing of the 2005 Act the ‘demand test’ was removed from legal consideration in the licensing of betting shops. This, coupled with the quirks of planning legislation – the so called Town and Country Planning (Use Classes Order) (1987) which allows change of use between betting shops, banks, estate and employment agencies, and financial service companies without requirement for planning permission – in effect has made it difficult for local authorities or local communities to refuse or influence the relocation of betting shops on the high street.

So under the current planning and licensing system the betting companies find themselves in the position of one of many choice architects in the design of the ‘debtogenic’ urban landscape, notably in economically disadvantaged areas. However, this may change.

Firstly, the DCMS Select Committee launched an inquiry into the implementation and operation of the Gambling Act 2005 back in May. Written representations by community groups have emphasised the clustering and demand test issues. And Joan Ruddock MP for Lewisham Deptford introduced a Private Members Bill in July to make betting shops subject to planning permission, reintroduce the “demand test” as well as allow local planning authorities to put a cap on the numbers allowed in an area.

The location of betting shops has become a highly politicised issue, one which pits Labour against Liberal and Conservative ideologies.

Conservative and Liberal MP’s generally didn’t support David Lammy’s earlier attempt to introduce a similar piece of legislation into the Localism Bill and there is little to suggest they will in January when Ruddock’s Bill gets a second reading.

But, if I might be forgiven for oversimplification, it seems that in the gambling debate larger ideological divisions in the way behaviour should be regulated or nudged are revealed. For example economic liberal and libertarian politicians seem to locate pathological problems that manifest in individuals (in this case associated with gambling) as lying with the individual, not their social context. Hence intervention should be limited and targeted at the body not the social body, which sits well with an emphasis on behavioural economic logics. Left of centre or progressive politicians seem to see such problems as being one in which context contributes to individual pathology which in turn produces a social harm necessitating the intervention of the state to both minimise social harm and change the context. The subtleties of ‘behaviour change’ techniques sit less comfortably with big thinking and a presumption of bigger government. Quite how behaviour change or nudge discourses are enrolled into the way the gambling issue is going to be debated in coming months will prove interesting.

Marc, Sept 2011

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2 responses to “Bashing the bookies, nudging the high street

  1. Great post Marc – I have a couple more thoughts on this.

    1) I actually did some work as a Mystery Shopper a few years ago, and I visited both Ladbrokes and William Hill as part of that (possibly Coral as well).

    What was particularly interesting was the things that the bookmakers were most interested in, beyond general tidiness of the stores and the manners of the staff. There were three things they were always asking for:

    – That the punter be offered a complimentary hot beverage (this did not seem to be contingent on placing a bet). This seemed to hold more importance than I would have expected, and was always one of the first things asked on the feedback.

    – That the window displays were advertising the correct thing at the correct time – these were always to advertise the machines, and a time-specific football related promotion.

    – How many people were using the fixed odds machines at the time of the visit.

    Everything else was pretty much inconsequential to them. The visits generally involved placing a two pound bet on the particular promotion advertised in the window (usually some kind of accumulator), but done from the perspective of whether the assistant could accurately explain the permutations of the bet to a new customer with no experience of the bookmaking world, so that the customer would then be confident in taking the punt.

    I wouldn’t pretend to know the research that has gone into this – I imagine they spend a lot on it – but it seemed to me they were constantly trying to refine the methods of getting new people in the door, and keeping them there – fairly obvious business strategy, but it was the way they measured these things that was interesting.

    2) During my 4 years on a Licensing Committee we were never troubled once by a betting establishment – none were ever summoned for a hearing (in the event of an infraction of the law, the Responsible Authorities can request the council review the Premises Licenses, in addition to any Fixed Penalty Notices or court action taking place – held in front of 3 members of the Licensing Committee).

    Off licenses were regularly called before us, and less often pubs were – and some licenses were revoked or amended. Almost always this was the result of a spot check by Trading Standards and the Police (always a Test Purchase for underage sales) although occasionally it was related to a request by the owners for a change to the License particulars.

    To my knowledge, Trading Standards and the Police never carried out a test purchase on a bookmaker – I may be wrong. My conversations with the licensing officer from […] Constabulary indicated that the off licenses and pubs were targeted at the direction of the Chief Constable, at least in part for public relations reasons – again that might be just scuttlebutt.

    I happen to think that the real reason was that nobody really understood the gambling section of the Licensing Act as they did the part relating to the sale of alcohol by retail – certainly, my training on it amounted to 60 minutes PowerPoint with a Barrister, so I would not have been able to reach any kind of informed decision had I been part of a hearing on it.

    I’m sure the council licensing officers knew their stuff, but even they said that the universal opinion was that it was badly drafted, cryptic, and difficult to enforce. But I never got the impression that the Police or Trading Standards were that concerned – perhaps because the effects of underage gambling or other breaches of the gambling law aren’t so immediately obvious as those associated with drinking – and therefore less of a policing matter.

    One thing to mention is that Licensing Committees can designate a part of their area a Saturation Zone, which is where it is the considered opinion of the council that there are too many licensed establishments within a particular area and it is socially detrimental – it removes what is known as the Presumption to Grant, and instead places the onus on the applicant to demonstrate that the addition of their premises will not cause further problems to the area. This generally refers to licenses to trade alcohol rather than gambling, but as they are all encapsulated within the general Premises License it will effect them – by the same token it also covers those needing a Premises License to serve hot refreshments between 11pm and 5am, and so will enrage prospective kebab shop owners.

    As far as I know this is very rarely implemented because it will most likely just result in the decision of any hearings being appealed to a Magistrates Court, and the council getting costs awarded against them – so I couldn’t name a place that has done it.

    Interesting Stuff.

  2. Pingback: The Gambler | Transforming Behaviours

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