Despite what you may have heard, recent changes to UK zoning laws won’t allow bookmakers to set up shop in a corner of your local pub. Last week, the UK government lifted restrictions regarding change of use permits for empty premises on the nation’s high streets. The planning rules revamp was intended to perform CPR on the ailing shopping areas by encouraging entrepreneurs to turn unused premises into new businesses.
However, critics immediately cried foul, claiming the change would result in a glut of new betting shops and payday lenders, aka the Sodom and Gomorrah of UK retail. Critics claimed that the government had gutted the ability of local councils to have some say in the character of their neighborhoods. Newham council made headlines in February by rejecting a high street application by Irish bookies Paddy Power over the amount of income the shop would derive from the ever controversial fixed odds betting terminals (FOBTs).
Soon some wag suggested that bookies would be taking over all the boarded up pubs, which led some other wag to suggest pubs would be allowed to paint a yellow line on the floor and set up a bookie in one area of the pub (men’s washroom, last stall on the left). Cue hysterical screeds about dedicated drunks somehow managing to crawl over to the betting window without spilling a drop.
Naturally, such a scenario bore little resemblance to the truth. Yes, a bookie could take over an empty pub and convert it into a betting shop, but the UK Gambling Act 2005 expressly prohibits the holding of both gambling and liquor licenses for the same business. So those drunks will now have to crawl out of the active pub and all the way across the street to make their wagers. Also, the planning rules changes have been given a lifespan of only two years, meaning the betting shops may only be temporary blemishes.
The NIMBY attitude toward betting shops is more than a little misguided given recent claims that one in five high street shops – nearly 62k nationwide – will shut their doors for good in the next five years. The Center for Retail Research issued a report last week saying the closures would result in a net loss of 316k jobs. Association of British Bookmakers chairman Neil Goulden marveled that with one in eight high street shops already empty and many more headed that way, local councils weren’t welcoming bookies with open arms. “The betting industry remains committed to investing in the nation’s high streets, providing jobs and paying taxes while other major retailers leave.”