Attacking bookmakers role on high street is shortsighted, says law firm

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Carl Dyer, retail partner at law firm Thomas Eggar, claims attacking the growth of bookmakers and betting shops on UK high streets is shortsighted in the current economic climate

This week’s prediction by the Local Data Company high street vacancies are set to rise further in 2012 has sparked a debate around whether bookmakers and betting shops can, and should, have a role to play in revitalising the British high street.

The Portas Review claimed a proliferation of bookmakers in low-income areas is ‘blighting our high streets’ and they should be placed in a planning Use Class of their own, to enable them to be more tightly regulated.

The question has to be asked: can the country afford to exclude potentially profitable businesses from the high street at a time when so many retailers are closing their doors? And, do bookmakers need to be still further regulated at all?

Although bookmakers and betting shops fall within the same planning Use Class as other financial or professional services on the high street, they are already heavily regulated under other legislation. Before a new bookmaker can open its doors, it already needs to obtain a multitude of licences from the Gambling Commission and the Local Authorities. Additionally, if the premises are not already within the financial services Use Class, planning permission for a change of use is required. All three forms of betting license are subject to both substantial application and annual renewal fees and a further fee is also payable if a planning application is needed.

Betting services are also some of the most heavily taxed activities on the high street. According to the Association of British Bookmakers, the bookmaking industry pays close to £1bn in tax each year, about £400m more than they make in profit, and pays approximately £10,000 in business rates per store.

In the current economic climate, attacking one of the few growth industries currently seeking to take additional space on the high street appears short-sighted. Retail units are falling empty, and empty properties create their own blight. Allowing betting shops to occupy some of these properties provides employment for local workers and ensures a degree of footfall and activity – together hopefully with trips to adjoining retailers. They also provide a rental income stream for hard-pressed landlords, and protect the Commercial Property rates income for the local councils.

Despite these benefits, and the heavy regulation that already exists, we still have siren calls for action from those apparently on little more than a moral crusade against what they see as an undesirable industry. Surely in this most commercial of markets – the high street – we should let people vote with their wallets for the services they want, and trust the market to deliver them. Rather than still further tightening the planning system, ministers might do better to consider relaxing the Use Classes Order to allow more financial services businesses to trade from shop units. And, yes, I do include bookmakers in that.