Many years ago, as a reckless youth, I went into a local betting shop and put down a few pounds on the Grand National. I did so out of curiosity and because it’s something of a tradition in the UK to place a bet on the year’s biggest horse race. I didn’t win anything and I have never felt moved to go back since. A quick poll suggests that my friends and family don’t frequent such establishments either.
But I must be unusual. I mustn’t be moving in ordinary circles because if you go to any ordinary high street in the UK it would appear that the British are, in fact, a nation of insatiable gamblers.
We’re not talking Las Vegas-style gambling here. Bookmakers, or bookies, are everywhere. Even in London’s more desirable neighbourhoods you’ll spot the odd Ladbrokes or William Hill sitting alongside the boutiques and organic grocery stores but, inevitably, their number rises as the demographic shifts down a notch on the socio-economic scale.
Deptford is a less-than-affluent area of South London with around seven betting shops in the high street alone. In my own home patch in Hackney, East London, you’re spoilt for choice if you fancy a punt on the horses but you’ll have a hard job finding a bank or a decent coffee.
A sign of straitened times it may be but the recent proliferation of bookmakers is also down to the vagaries of British planning regulations. To put it simply, in 2005 a new Gambling Act was introduced, allowing them to set up more easily in more places, without planning permission.
Last December, a proposal was put forward in parliament to change the law again to stop betting shops from spreading unchecked. At the end of March the government made its decision – it refused the proposal.
Of course, bookmakers are businesses with as much right as any other to grow by meeting demand when it’s there and creating it when it isn’t. But it’s difficult to argue that an area benefits from so many of them.
Let’s return to multi-cultural Deptford High Street. All the elements of a potentially vibrant neighbourhood are there – little cafes, a weekly market selling fruit, vegetables and antiques, plenty of useful, independent shops – a small gallery even. A glut of betting shops surely can’t be good for a place that has so much potential and that needs every chance it can get.
When the government says it wants our high streets to prosper, there’s no reason not to believe it. And I’m hopeful that one day soon it will begin to understand what a decent high street actually needs.