Reino Unido: Poderão os municípios impedir a expansão das casas de apostas para as zonas pobres? Não aposte nisso.

In the runup to Christmas, Bradford’s imposing city centre is littered with festive lights. They give a little cheer to a somewhat run-down Victorian shopping district dominated by building...

In the runup to Christmas, Bradford’s imposing city centre is littered with festive lights. They give a little cheer to a somewhat run-down Victorian shopping district dominated by building societies, banks, charity shops, and, more recently, a growing concentration of betting shops. There are 11 in barely a 250m radius, with the corner of Broadway and Bank Street the epicentre: a William Hill, a Paddy Power, a Ladbrokes and another William Hill are all next to each other.

On the afternoon of my visit they are all busy with people playing on the fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs), the machines which have been the focus of a broad alliance of campaigners who say they fuel people’s gambling addictions. At Betfred on Market Street, Sally Hinton (not her real name), a white British woman in her 60s, is playing roulette on a FOBT. “I’m addicted,” she tells me. “I’m trying to stop. I want to stop. I need to stop.” Hinton says she has gambled for years, playing in casinos and bingo halls. But it only got bad when she tried FOBTs. “As soon as I learnt how to play these, I lost £15,000 in two years,” Hinton says. “Anyway, I won £11 today, so I’m up,” she says.

Councils, anti-gambling charities, the Church of England, and political parties from Labour to Ukip are united in calls for the £100 stake that can be bet every 20 seconds on these machines to be reduced to just £2. The government is currently considering options to cut the maximum legal stake to between £50 and £2.

FOBTs are lucrative: they make up 56% of betting shops’ profit. Since they are constrained by a legal limit of four machines per shop, imposed under the 2005 Gambling Act, bookmakers have opened multiple outlets in the most profitable areas of the country. FOBT players tend to live in neighbourhoods with higher levels of deprivation, unemployment and ethnic diversity according to a 2015 report on the socioeconomic characteristics of machine gamblers for the charity GambleAware. And it found that people who live near a concentration of betting shops are far more likely to become problem gamblers.

In Bradford, one of the most deprived local authorities in Englandone in three people aged 16-64 are not in work and those that do work earn an average weekly income of just £476, well below the average wage in the rest of the region. The city is home to a total of 62 betting shops, and is the sixth most profitable local authority area for the betting industry outside London. Gamblers there lost an estimated £10.6m on FOBTs in 2015/16, according to figures compiled for the Campaign for Fairer Gambling.

Gambling is an endemic problem,’ says Bradford Labour councillor Richard Dunbar. ‘If it was a physical disease sweeping the country, something would happen straight away.’ Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian

Richard Dunbar, a Bradford Labour councillor, argues that the clusters of betting shops in the city centre have had a hugely negative impact on the local community. He believes that they unbalance the vitality of the town by dominating the city centre, and worse, they increase the risk of gambling addictionSome 430,000 people in the UK are thought to have a serious gambling problem, up from 280,000 in 2012.

“It’s an endemic problem,” says Dunbar. “And what are we doing about it? If it were a physical disease sweeping the country, something would happen straight away. So why not with problem gamblers?”

In its submission to the government consultation, the Local Government Association, which represents local authorities, asked for councils to have further planning and licensing powers to prevent the clustering of betting shops. As things stand – despite legislation requiring specific planning permission to turn any premises into a betting shop – planning and licensing laws brought in under the 2005 Gambling Act mainly favour the bookmakers.

Since the beginning of this year, the Planning Inspectorate in England, which acts as the independent adjudicator for planning appeals, has considered five appeals by bookmakers against planning decisions by Rotherham, Lancaster, Lewisham, Greenwich and Doncaster councils. In every appeal, the local authority’s decision to refuse planning permission was overturned.

In each case, the inspectorate cited the lack of conclusive evidence that social harm can be caused by betting shops. In March, Paddy Power won an appeal against Rotherham council to open its first branch in the town centre. The planning inspector in charge of the appeal decision said that “no evidence has been provided to confirm that the proposal would directly fail to contribute to the health of the town centre”. Whereas, Paddy Power had provided sufficient evidence that “relatively high levels of footfall are anticipated”.

Ben Johnson, a planning officer from Islington council, in north London, says that the inspectorate is only interested in hard, localised evidence. “They should take a more precautionary approach,” he says, since the evidence for social harm is often too circumstantial, whereas it is easy for bookmakers to give figures on footfall and the new jobs a betting shop would provide.

Bookmakers’ appeals are also being upheld due to the absence of a specific local policy on betting shops. The planning inspector is obliged to consider councils’ local development plans. As the government review says: “Having an up-to-date, relevant local plan policy in place will support the local planning authority in the determination of any applications for planning permission”.

But in September, BetExtra was granted planning permission on appeal to open a shop in the centre of town alongside 12 other bookmakers. The appeal decision noted that Doncaster had no specific policy on the maximum sustainable number of betting shops.

This is because the council’s development plan was adopted in 1998, the year before FOBTs were introduced and long before the clustering of betting shops became an issue.

Doncaster is currently updating its local plan, and compiling evidence to support a betting shops policy. Asked why it hadn’t included one sooner, a spokeswoman says: “Preparing a new or revised plan is an intensive and costly process. This includes preparation of evidence, adapting to new strategic proposals, a sustainability appraisal, public consultation, submission to government and examination in public.”

As Johnson points out, local plans are complex and wide-ranging. “It might not be worth reviewing an existing plan just to add a single policy,” he says. There is currently no statutory requirement to have a local plan or keep it up to date.

The London borough of Newham, which has been campaigning against the concentration of bookmakers for years, is the first council in England to include limits to the number betting shops in its local plan, adopted in September 2016. “We have consistently called on bookmakers to stop blighting the most deprived communities with these high-stakes machines but local authorities are hamstrung by a lack of powers,” says Robin Wales, mayor of the east London borough.

Newham has a total of 84 betting shops, including 12 on one street. Since 2008, the council has rejected eight betting shop applications. Each one has been overturned by the Planning Inspectorate. The new policy is yet to be tested, but it aims to prevent new shops from locating in areas where there are already three units of the same use within a 400m radius.

Yet few councils have followed Newham’s lead. Back in Bradford, since 2008, the council has rejected three betting shop applications. Of these, two were overturned by the Inspectorate.

Bradford has not included a specific betting shop policy in its recently updated local plan, instead relying on other planning policies from its area action plan.

A council spokeswoman says that it has recently passed a motion to write to the government expressing its concerns, and asking for “greater powers through the planning system to restrict the excessive clustering on our high streets of betting shops with FOBTs”.

A Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport spokeswoman says councils already have the necessary powers. “In 2015 new planning laws gave local authorities more power to determine the number of new betting shops opening on the high street. Since then there has been a marked drop-off in the total number of betting shops in the UK.”

But the Gambling Commission says the fall in betting shop numbers was just 1.4% in 2016.

Martin Tett, the LGA’s environment spokesman, says: “It’s crucial that councils are sufficiently funded to undertake their planning functions because the process of building the evidence base for a local plan is costly and resource intensive. However, there has been a 46% real-terms reduction in spending on planning and development services between 2010/11 and 2014/15, which makes this a greater challenge for many councils.”

As Dunbar points out, “The government has cut this council’s [Bradford’s] budget in half in the last 10 years. We have less money to do the things we need to do to protect and serve our citizens.

“Look at the gambling industry’s £13.8bn profit (including £1.8bn just on FOBTs). Then look at a council that’s having to cut services left, right and centre. We’re obviously not going to have as much money to service appeals and go against corporate betting industry giants.”

Source: The Guardian

Fonte: Diário de Notícias