Gambling Protections & Controls – Are Planning Reforms the Answer?
By Daniel Brown
Last week the Coalition Government published ‘Gambling Protections and Controls’ (GPaC), a document setting out the statutory measures it intends to take to ensure that regulation keeps pace with the ever evolving gambling industry. Given the subject matter you’d be forgiven for assuming that the reforms proposed would focus on licencing laws, advertising standards and bookmaker codes of practice; however, it’s the planning system which is given centre stage.
The reason for this is that the Government, acting on the advice of the Local Government Association (LGA), has identified the ‘clustering’ of betting shops on the high street and the harm caused by high-stake Fixed Odds Betting Terminal (FOBT) machines as key issues facing our communities. In the LGA’s view these two issues are interrelated with licencing regulations only permitting four FOBTs per premises, thus theoretically increasing the demand for new betting shops in already profitable locations.
In order to address this issue the Government plans to introduce further reforms to the planning system. These will include the removal of betting shops from Use Class A2 and the creation of a new Use Class to deal specifically with such operations. Permitted development rights enabling Class A3 (restaurants), A4 (drinking establishments) and A5 (hot food take aways) uses to change to this new class without the need for planning permission will also be removed. In this fashion a planning application will always be required for a new betting shop, unless it is replacing an existing facility.
Whilst the introduction of measures aimed at reducing problem gambling can only be a positive thing in principle, I have to query whether the planning system is the right tool to solve this problem. Firstly, the question has to be asked, is the proliferation of this use an issue and does it justify intervention? Surprisingly GPaC accepts that the overall number of betting shops on our high streets has been “stable in recent years” and indeed my research suggests that the number has actually remained broadly static at approximately 9,000 for the past 10 years.
Furthermore, the gambling industry does not appear to be boasting of rapid floorspace expansion – in fact quite the opposite. The two largest bookmakers, William Hill and Ladbrokes, actually announced the closure of more than 150 shops between them earlier this year. On these figures the quantitative justification for taking action through the planning system appears questionable.
If it’s not a question of sheer numbers, is there a case for intervention based on the impact of betting shops on the vitality and viability of our town centres? Whilst Mary Portas concluded in her report (The Portas Review, 2011) that betting shops are ‘blighting’ our high streets a bookmaker might equally argue that it’s simply operating precisely where planning policy dictates. The ‘town centre first’ approach has been the guiding principle of national retail policy for almost two decades and ensures that retail services such as betting shops are focussed within our high streets, rather than less sustainable out-of-centre sites.
The Government’s proposed reforms seemingly represent a further level of micro-management which tests the acceptability of ‘town centre uses’ such as betting shops within the centre itself. There is an obvious paradox here. On the one hand the National Planning Policy Framework seeks to promote competition, choice and diversity within our town centres – essentially a free market approach. Meanwhile, the reforms proposed by GPaC indicate that the Government is seeking greater control over how our town centres operate. I personally view this as a retrograde step, not least because the ever increasing competition generated by the internet means that town centres need to be able to adapt quickly to market demands and attract investment wherever available. Making it harder and more expensive for bookmakers to invest in centres may ultimately drive them towards developing their on-line offer and reducing their physical presence. This would result in job losses, reduced footfall, and vacant units. It would ultimately give rise to negative effects upon the health of our centres. Therefore, there doesn’t appear to be a convincing case for intervention on the grounds of enhancing vitality and viability.
Finally, what is the likely outcome of intervention? The answer is unclear but if evidence from recent planning appeal decisions is anything to go by it will be very difficult for Local Authorities to find robust grounds to resist a change of use to a betting shop within a town centre. Planning permission is of course already required to change from Use Class A1 to A2 and shop units such as this are often the most suitable for conversion to betting shops. Having reviewed examples of such applications being determined at appeal there appears to be a relatively consistent approach taken by the Planning Inspectorate. Modern betting shops are repeatedly viewed as uses which provide an active frontage during daylight hours, contribute to footfall, and promote linked trips to other surrounding businesses.
In short, they are generally deemed by Inspectors to add to the vibrancy of the high street, rather than having a detrimental impact upon vitality and viability. It’s hard to see how the intervention proposed by the Government will alter this perception, and what the contrary planning arguments might be. Issues of morality or the wider social impact of gambling are not material considerations to be afforded weight in the planning process and it will be interesting to see whether further guidance is published by the Government in due course setting out legitimate matters for consideration. A form of ‘need’ test would perhaps represent one solution, although surely this would be challenged as anti-competitive by the gambling industry.
The detail of the proposals will be consulted upon in summer 2014, with the changes themselves taking place from October 2014. I for one hope that the planning reforms are scrapped in favour of more stringent licencing of FOBTs in existing premises and new betting shops. However, given the rhetoric contained within the Government’s consultation document, I fear that the odds are stacked against this.