Could Betting Shop Closures Reduce Local Addiction and Crime?
It’s not a secret that a large number of betting shops have had to close their doors permanently in recent years. And while the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic has been a driving force behind some more recent closures, this has been something that has been occurring even prior to that happening. It was only in August of this year that William Hill announced that it would be closing 119 of its high street betting shops. This was done due to the fact that the brand said it didn’t expect customers to return in high enough numbers once lockdown had come to an end in the UK. However, in 2019, it proceeded with the closure of 700 of its shops, too.
The likelihood is that more betting shops, which have been quite the familiar presence on UK high streets for many decades now, will close their doors for good in the near future as well. And while many people have suggested that this isn’t good for the betting companies themselves, there may potentially be something good that comes from it. Is it possible that the closures of these high street stores will lead to a reduction in local gambling addiction and crime? Especially in deprived areas where betting shops are usually a lot more prevalent?
Obviously, there’s always the likelihood that people will simply relocate to the online betting world as an alternative. However, addiction to gambling is seen in high figures when it comes to real-world cash betting. If the locations where this activity takes place are closed, could it actually be of some assistance to the communities and people who are affected by addiction? And furthermore, is it possible that crime related to betting shops would be reduced in the process?
Could Closures Breathe New Life into High Streets?
It’s a question that has been on the lips of many people – whether reducing the number of betting shops on high streets in the UK will allow them to go through a sort of resuscitation period. Could it be possible that the removal of these shops permanently could allow new and inviting businesses to open up in their place?
When William Hill announced that it was closing 700 of its shops in 2019, The Daily Express reported on analysis that had been undertaken by HARNESS Property Intelligence. From that research, it was suggested that a new era could be in line for the UK high streets. HARNESS conducted its research between 2010 and 2017, examining around 4,000 betting shops within both England and Wales. It found that about 132 of those shops had closed during that time period but had also re-opened as totally new businesses. Over one third of those were re-opened as shops of some kind, meaning that the closure announced by William Hill could result in quite the boom for the high street.
The logic behind that theory was that the research had proven that the closures over the last seven years were of no downfall to the high street. Instead, they allowed new opportunities to arise and be grabbed at with both hands.
With ever more stringent laws being brought into place and the UK government looking to adjust the laws surrounding gambling regulation in the coming months, more shop closures are expected. And while this will potentially allow more businesses to take over the buildings that they leave vacant, what will it mean for betting-related crime and gambling addiction in these areas? And more specifically, what sort of crime are we talking about here?
A Potential Reduction in Gambling-Related Crime?
It’s easy to say the word ‘crime’ but when it comes to betting shops, what sort of crime can occur there? We’re sure that nobody has been arrested for stealing someone else’s betting ticket! Alas, that’s not the kind of crime that is committed in such establishments, although that’s not to say that it doesn’t happen. Actually, we’re referring to money laundering.
With the introduction of the Gambling Act 2005 in the UK, betting shops were allowed to incorporate fixed odds betting terminals (FOBTs) into their setup. Essentially, these FOBTs provide players with a turbo-charged form of roulette to play, which was something previously only found in members-only casinos. For several years, they allowed players to bet up to £100 per go, with intervals of 20 seconds between these rounds. Around 35,000 of them ended up being active within UK high street betting shops. And a large portion of those were found within areas of high welfare dependency, too.
Those opposed to the FOBTs describe them as the “crack-cocaine of gambling”, for obvious reasons. Essentially, they ended up taking money from those people who could least afford to lose it. That’s quite the opposite of the members-only casinos, where the wealthy would gamble their excesses of money away instead.
However, they also became quite the convenient way for drug dealers to launder the proceeds of their crimes, too. The Guardian newspaper in the UK conducted several interviews with dealers in 2013, who had spoken of their utilisation of FOBTs to aid their criminal activity. With the ability to wager such high amounts at that time, some dealers were feeding £200 totals into it at a time. As part of that article, Randeep Ramesh conducted an interview with a dealer called James, 24. As a drug dealer, he laundered his money from those deals by feeding it into the FOBTs, losing a little as is quite common, and then cashing it out with the vast majority of the stake they’ve played.
Following on from this, a printed ticket can be collected showing that they have gambled on a specific date. This means that if they are stopped by the police, they have answers to how an unemployed young man is able to carry around hundreds of pounds in rolled-up cash. This meant that those betting shop FOBTs became the most profitable pieces of equipment in the cities of higher deprivation. Each machine at the time tended to gross about £900 each week.
On one occasion, the Gambling Commission fined top-brand name Coral a total of £90,000 in profits that were made from a single drug dealer, who had laundered almost £1 million via its shops. It was in 2013 that the Commission also admitted that FOBTs do present a high money-laundering risk, and this has been the case ever since being made available within bookies.
Action has already been taken to reduce the maximum stake that can be placed on these games per round to £2. However, whether or not this is something that also reduces the maximum amount that can be “deposited” into the machine at any given time is another question. It likely wouldn’t be of any huge deterrent to a drug dealer who simply wants to utilise a bit of the money and then make a cashout.
If these high street betting shops are closed down, the FOBTs that are utilised for money laundering purposes would go with them. That provides one less easily accessible location for such criminals to engage in money laundering. Would that reduce crime? Well, the likelihood is that the drug dealers would find somewhere else to continue their laundering. However, it’s possible that crime rates will be reduced within the areas of the betting shops.
Potential for a Reduction in Gambling Addiction?
While it’s true that people were calling for a reduction in the stakes able to be placed on FOBTs for many years before it took hold, this doesn’t stop people from entering into bookies. Instead, they remain operational, providing both sports betting opportunities and the rapid casino-style games within, too. Could the closure of these high street betting shops lead to a decrease in the number of people suffering with gambling addiction, then?
Not only did people choose to move against the unregulated casino-style gambling within these establishments, but they did as a reaction to the intent on lowering significant crime and anti-social behaviour associated with such. However, at the same time, there were concerns raised over the fact that the levels of problem gambling have soared within betting shops. The initial concerns came from the £100-every-20-seconds betting options associated with FOBTs. And the temptation of those high-stakes casino games being available on the high street were proving irresistible to some people.
At the same time, it was pointed out that there are double the number of betting shops found in the most deprived areas of England compared to the more affluent locations. These clusters of betting shops on high streets in those areas were a great cause for concern, with many people suggesting that they were readily contributing to the country’s increasing gambling addiction problem.
The maximum stake on those machines may have since been reduced to £2 per round instead of £100, but this doesn’t mean that people can’t be addicted to gambling because of it. Players can still wager away a huge amount, it just takes them longer to reach that particular level of betting. Of course, addicts aren’t always about playing for high stakes. It’s very much possible to be addicted to gambling even if you’re a low stakes player. For people living in the more deprived areas, this form of gambling is quite common, and it doesn’t make it any less of a problem, either.
Therefore, if more companies opt to close their high street betting shops down for good, it removes the temptation from sight. Gambling addiction is likely to see a decline if fewer shops are available to enter, and especially even more so if the outlets aren’t all clustered in one area. High streets have become overwhelmed with betting shops over the years, meaning that you can pass multiple ones on a single street, resulting in temptation for vulnerable people being exceptionally high.
The Online Threat
Some have suggested that even if high street betting shops do close their doors for good, criminals and addicts will simply turn their attention to the online sector. However, is the online gambling world as big a threat as the land-based sector?
Potentially not. The monitoring of players is much more stringent online, meaning that addiction is able to be tackled on a much better level, and money laundering is something that is heavily sought out, too. Therefore, it’s not as easy for such crimes to take place online, which is why the majority of it has been occurring at land-based bookmakers.
And if addicts choose to utilise the online scene as their method of gambling, new methods of monitoring player behaviour will assist with flagging these people down. From there, information and assistance with tackling gambling addiction can be enforced, which isn’t something that is often seen at land-based betting shops.
The Converse Effects
Of course, the closure of betting shops in such huge numbers also means that job losses will be experienced by many people. With companies having such a large number of land-based shops on the high street, that means a lot of staff will be left without their regular income. Naturally, that does impact communities on a local level, because we all need a salary to live from day-to-day.
High street stores have also brought forth a social aspect for many people, too. This is especially true for the older generation who aren’t as accustomed to using online betting sites as the younger players are. This is their motivation to go out, place a few bets and engage in some general conversation with others. Taking high street stores away could pretty much render them unable to do that elsewhere.
Really, it’s about achieving some sort of balance on the whole. The removal of so many shops from high streets in areas of high deprivation is definitely a first step. Clustering of such businesses in these locations is only adding to the problems that players and communities are experiencing. In addition, the potential complete removal of FOBTs from these shops could be another route to take alongside.
Whatever the case may be, there will always be people who say that it’s a positive outcome if all high street betting shops close and those who believe it to be a negative outcome. In the end, it’s about what’s right for the reduction in crime and gambling addiction.