Next year I will be stepping down from the London Assembly after 16 years and I have been thinking about what has changed in Lambeth and Southwark over that time.
Of the issues that have worsened, I consider the rise of gambling a big problem. This is not because I am a killjoy or overzealous about this ‘pastime’ but because I am aware of how easily betting and gambling can become addictive and damaging to individuals and their families.
When I watch TV I am alarmed by the amount of advertising – often involving reputable celebrities – for online gambling or bingo websites. I am hugely concerned by the rise of betting shops on our high streets. This growth is being allowed to continue largely unchecked in some areas because planning laws often mean that should a ‘financial institution’ close down – and unfortunately we are seeing many of the major banks closing smaller branches at the moment, no planning application is needed to change the use of the unit into a betting shop.
The Independent reported that the Gambling Commissions’ most recent survey indicated that the number of ‘problem gamblers’ – each having amassed debts of £17,500 on average had increased by 200,000. Increased access to the gambling industry, whether online or on the high street is clearly not going to curb this worrying trend.
Southwark Council have recently applied an ‘article 4 direction’ to some of its key shopping parades, thereby removing what are known as ‘permitted development rights’ from these premises, which means that changes of use which would previously have been allowed will now need planning permission. It is hoped that the extra ‘hoops’ this will force new owners to jump through in order for a vacant shop to become a betting shop will slow down the numbers of new bookies opening.
This is very wise use of the council’s increasingly limited planning powers, as the government has recently deregulated a number of planning controls which could ultimately see more big chains (including betting shops) overwhelming local high streets even further. Southwark is doing everything it can, using its much limited powers, to fight to keep the quality and diversity of shops in district centres, and reduce the impact of the gambling industry and should be applauded.
If you or a loved one need the support of Gambers’ Anonymous you can call 0300 500 5000 or visit www.gamblersanonymous.org.uk