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The year ahead

Little time to write, of late, I’m afraid. Below is my most recent column for Gaming Intelligence Quarterly which came out recently.



Can I just pat myself on the back for a minute? I was leafing through past columns, searching for inspiration, when I came across my missive from this time last year. Betfair shares had just plunged under £7.50 for the first time in a while, and my perky New Year’s message was to pile in. Take my advice, did you? Did you? How’s £10.95 for you, sir? Hoorah!

No such chirpy promises in my predictions for 2014, I’m afraid. The best thing you can say about the coming year, is that at least it isn’t 2015.

My gloomy outlook started to take shape in December when I read about an IPSOS-MORI poll, which underlined the gap between perception and reality in everyday life.  It revealed that the man on the street thinks 30 per cent of the country is black or Asian, 22 per cent Muslim, and 22 per cent unemployed. The real numbers are 11 per cent black or Asian, 5 per cent Muslim and 8 per cent unemployed.

“Five out of ten people haven’t a clue,” was how the FT headlined it – as if the key finding was that the British population was plain stupid. People’s perceptions are shaped by what they see on TV and what they read in the papers, when in fact the reality is a country far less diverse than that shown on the BBC.

The fact that our understanding of the world is shaped by the media causes the gambling industry significant problems, because the media thrives on anecdote, and anecdotes in gambling are rarely a good thing.

The widespread perception that betting shops are proliferating in poor areas and FOBTs are blighting people’s lives may or may not stand up to empirical evidence – I don’t know – but I haven’t actually seen any numbers to support it. However, it is a truth that has taken hold.

These “truths” have shaped the Labour backbench campaign (which addresses symptoms of poverty rather than causes). The backbenchers want to limit shops and FOBTs, which won’t, of course, affect the availability of gaming, which is now readily available in everyone’s pocket.

The party declined to comment on whether this policy was an implicit endorsement of online or mobile gambling (which used to be the anti-campaigners’ bugbear, on the basis that the big thing to address was people gambling by themselves).

There is no response either when asked about the unintended consequences of the proposed changes to planning laws, which give local authorities the power to limit the number of betting shops. They could close 50 per cent of shops but the likelihood is that people will still want to gamble and these punters will likely bet on their phones or computers

Local Authorities and anti-gambling campaigners are both delighted that High Streets will have fewer “mini casinos” (as they call the bookmakers) but they are not the recipient of bookies’ taxes, of course. That flows directly to central government – or not, perhaps, once it moves online.

The Treasury estimates it will capture only 80 per cent of what is due from online gaming, when the Point of Consumption tax comes in in December. So if Labour has already shifted half of the nation’s gambling revenue from the High Street to cyberspace then the party is effectively waving goodbye to 10 per cent of the country’s gambling tax receipts. How that can be addressed other than by putting rates up is anyone’s guess.

All in all, something of a bugger’s muddle; and perhaps there’s only a year to address it. What we need is a bit more of Adam Smith, of course. Not the one who was in DCMS and now heads up Public Policy at Paddy Power, but he of the invisible hand of the market.

Whatever the puritans say, betting shops exist because people want to use them. Proof of the pudding is that the only one where I live closed just before Christmas, uneconomic owing to lack of customer footfall. The good citizens of south-west London evidently don’t like a punt – unless they’re all doing it online of course.


Posted in Betting industry, Gambling, Regulation.

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2 Responses

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  1. Robert says

    Is it not a slight contradiction to state that the last remaining shop in your affluent area is closing whiles you disagree that they proliferate in poor areas? They must be somewhere?

    I would also doubt that the majority of cash punters in places like Newham are going to rush online if their FOBTs disappear.

  2. colston says

    I suppose that means another Costa or Starbucks in Barnes, mind you they do have wifi, but no live pictures!

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