By guest writer Ayesha Salim
The bookmaking industry has come under increasing scrutiny in recent times. The popularity of betting shops in the UK has been linked with the rise of problem gambling, and some criticise the bookmaking industry for adding to this issue. This article will take a look at areas in the UK known for having the highest density of betting shops and whether there is any truth to these claims.
What’s the Situation?
It is the rise of ‘fixed-odds betting terminals’ (FOBTs) in high streets across the UK that has been said to contribute to problem gambling. It has been alleged that players spend £42 billion in the machines every year and can lose a whopping £18,000 in an hour.
These are massive claims and have been heavily criticised by author and journalist, Christopher Snowdon. Snowdon believes that the way ‘spend’ has been used is misleading, and points out  that campaigners have neglected to mention that 97 per cent of money spent is returned in prizes. The actual spend is around £1.5 billion, which is similar to the amount spent on traditional over-the-counter betting.
The claim that players lose £18,000 an hour has also been questioned by Snowdon. Snowdon gives an example of a punter putting £100 into the machine every 20 seconds and then losing each time. For a player to lose each game in succession is highly improbable. In fact, Snowdon believes it is billions to one. This type of situation could never happen in real-life.
Even if some of these figures are improbable, new figures reveal a high number of betting shops in some of the least well-off areas in the UK. Some have had suspicions as to whether bookmakers have been focusing their business in particular neighbourhoods. It has been reported  that 55 of the poorest boroughs of the country, mostly in northern cities, have 2,691 betting shops in high streets.
In these very betting shops, a huge £13bn was gambled or staked on FOBTs by punters. This figure is interesting when compared with money spent on gambling in richer areas. Campaign for Fairer Gambling, a non-profit organisation, found  6.7 billion was put into the slots in the most deprived areas – almost quadruple the 1.76 billion risked in the richest.
Four major players dominate the betting industry: William Hill, Ladbrokes, Gala Coral and Betfred. Together, they run  83% of UK’s betting shops.
Campaign for Fairer Gambling revealed a number of areas in the UK which seem to have the highest number of betting shops. In Newham, a part of east London, it has been claimed  there are more bookmakers than any other in the country comprising of 80 in the borough as a whole. In east London’s Bethnal Green and Bow, 45 betting shops had a total of  £243m placed in bets on machines. The shops offer quick fire casino games, allowing punters to stake up to £100 on a 20-second spin of the wheel.
Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester are also named as having a high density of betting shops. It was reported  that £53.1 million was gambled in Birmingham last year on high-stakes machines in bookies.
Liverpool was also named for attracting gamblers. It estimated up to £600m a year is being gambled on the machines in Liverpool.
Gambling and the Financial Climate
A growing concern is that a number of constituencies have some of the highest unemployment rates in the country, yet spend  over £65 million per year in betting shops. Birmingham Ladywood has a high unemployment rate but despite this, with 43 betting shops, over £163 million is spent on betting per year.
In a recent report, Birmingham Hodge Hill, Middlesbrough, Wolverhampton South East and Hull and Hessle all had combined losses of £12million. By contrast,  the five areas least affected, which included West Aberdeenshire and North East Hampshire, lost a total of £4.4million. The West Midlands overall lost £99,987,202 on the machines.
So why do these areas have such a high density of betting shops, and is there such a problem, as the reports suggest? Some believe one reason is because of political divisions, as there seem to be a large volume of betting shops in Labour MPs’ constituencies, whilst the betting shops are almost completely missing in Tory MPs’ constituencies.
However, according to another analysis , betting shops are so prevalent in Britain because they are listed as “financial services” in planning guidelines. Essentially, shop fronts that were once banks and building societies could be converted into betting shops without any planning permission. Ministers have been urged to remove this anomaly to ensure that prospective bookmakers do have to apply for planning permission.
But what about areas that already have great numbers of betting shops? The government has announced plans  to give better protection to players on FOBTs. If the player wants to bet more than 50 in one play they would have to pay over the counter.
However, the Association of British Bookmakers (ABB) has responded by saying that the rapid growth of betting shops is not as high as reports suggest. According to the ABB, there is no  proliferation, as there are currently around 8,700 betting shops in the UK and the number of shops has remained stable for ten years.
Snowdon believes the rise in numbers has been extremely modest. According to Snowdon, the number  of betting shops began to drop in the late 1960s and reached its lowest level at the turn of the century. Since then, there has been only a slight recovery, with numbers rising by 4.5 per cent between 2000 and 2012.
The ABB has also stated  that even in areas that apparently have the most betting shops, they make up less than 3% of retail units. For instance, betting shops make up less than 2.3% of retail units in Southwark, 2.7% in Lewisham, 2.7% in Hackney, 2.8% in Wood Green, 3.2% in Manchester, 3.3% in Birmingham and 3.5% in Leeds.
What About Online Gambling?
All this discussion about betting shops in the UK neglects to mention another very important factor – the rise of online competition. There’s been a rapid growth of bingo websites. As recently  as 2004 fewer than 20 such sites operated in the UK – now there are thought to be about 350.
It has been revealed that 85% of bingo players now now play online. But which areas in the UK have the highest number of online bingo players? According to recent figures, London came out top with the highest number of players per month (18430), followed by Manchester (2423) and Glasgow (1891).
Bookmakers have been criticised in the British media for encouraging gambling addicts by opening up more betting shops in high streets across the UK. Whilst there is evidence to suggest certain communities having a higher density of betting shops than other more prosperous areas, there is no hard evidence to suggest the poorer areas are being targeted by bookmakers specifically. Betting shops are not permitted to have more than four FOBTs and some areas have higher demand for betting than others.
Just like other businesses, bookmakers have to weigh up the cost of running the betting shop in deciding where to open up the new shop. However, some communities are more vulnerable than others, so perhaps new regulations to discourage problem gambling would be beneficial.