Wednesday, 23 November 2011

An ethical bookmaker

I saw some interesting research published the other day about how betting companies are targeting poor areas and are “driving families further into poverty”. It’s not often that the substance of my day job runs head long into the escapist thread of this blog. But there we are. No blog is an island.

The issue has taxed me before. This report by NatCen, the Government-funded centre for independent research and the Responsible Gambling Fundconcludes that slot machine arcades are taking over vacant shopping centre and leisure outlets in places that have been worst hit by the recession. We are not talking about gambling on horse racing specifically, but more the general proliferation of ‘high density machine zones’ and gaming arcades that are thriving as the economic downturn forces the closure of shops and leisure outlets. But bookies contribute significantly to this as well: fixed-odds betting terminals (in effect ‘casino’ machines) and virtual sport betting are on the rising curve of bookmakers' profits.

This research seems to be saying that the gambling industry has been fast off the mark in plugging the gap in the high street entertainment business, particularly in depressed areas. In so doing it is said to be exploiting the inactivity associated with high unemployment in places like the Welsh Valleys, Barnsley, Halifax and parts of Glasgow. Harriet Harman, the shadow culture secretary, goes further. Last week she argued that in her own constituency of Camberwell and Peckham, betting firms were deliberately opening branches in poor areas, pushing families further into poverty and creating a link between benefit dependence and gambling. Labour wants new powers to enable councils and local people to stop betting shops opening.

But maybe bookies can be part of the solution and not part of the problem… How about an ethical bookmaker that is run as a social enterprise, re-investing profits in the local community in which it is based and from where the customers come. Or better still, run by them. It’s not that far-fetched. In my day job, I work with many community organisations who are refining their entrepreneurial flair to develop enterprises that can help to regenerate areas and offer tailored services to local people. An ethical bookmaker can have role in this world. As we have already seen, they have a deep reach into many of the most deprived areas in the country. Half an hour in any bookie off the Holloway Road would confirm that. A social enterprise makeover for the humble bookmaker could provide a gateway to other advice and support services in deprived areas, perhaps including help with gambling and other addictive behaviour. Profits would be harvested from responsible gambling and re-invested in community projects. I once suggested this approach in a ‘Dragon’s Den'-type competition held in advance of a conference promoted by my former employer. Sadly the conference was cancelled and my idea never saw the light of day.

It’s fanciful idea, of course. There would be moralistic arguments, amongst others, to overcome. Prospective investors in the model – likely to be public sector in reality – might be squeamish about basing a community policy that relied on encouraging gambling. On the other hand, we seem to have got over that problem when it comes to the National Lottery, often perceived as a tax on the poor. And now we have a new Health Lottery that has been criticized for creaming off too many profits for its operators.

I’m not the only one to have a similar idea. Keeping with the NHS angle, my good friend Crispin, whilst undergoing some pretty serious treatment at Kings College hospital earlier this year said via Facebook “Thinking as a patient, one of many things the NHS 'needs' is a betting shop in each hospital. Why not an 'NHS Tote', the 'People's Bookie' ?!” “Absolutely right,” I said, “Crispin, you've read my mind. For years I've been touting the concept of the socially-motivated, community re-investment bookmaker as a tool to resource urban and rural regeneration. Can't find a funder to back me though!”. He continued, “but it's definitely a good idea…..I have now posted this approach/suggestion - i.e. an NHS Tote - to the Dept Health 'consultation' whilst the Government 'pauses' to reflect on any changes to their NHS reforms ....”
Needless to say, neither of us have had any success in turning this half-baked idea into reality. I still think it’s a winner though. Just don’t put your mortgage on it.


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