The next time you’re in Glasgow city centre, I’d like you to play a game. Count the number of betting shops you can see. Start at Driftwood and walk up Sauchiehall Street, passing Rose, Cambridge, Hope and West Nile Street along the way. Turn right onto Buchanan Street, walking down until you’re on Argyle Street. Turn left, and keep walking onto the Trongate. Stop when you reach the start of London Road. In total I reckon I saw 20 betting shops during my walk along Glasgow’s self-titled ‘Style Mile.’
Some streets have three or four of them clustered together; on others there are two betting shops owned by the same bookmaker less than 100 metres apart. Along the route I also counted a shockingly high 10 Greggs, but their monopoly on high street baking is an article for another day.
If you think that the outrageous number of bookmakers dotted across Glasgow’s three premier streets is limited to a city that has always identified with a strong, working class society – one that’s more likely to gamble than any other social standing – then you’d be wrong. The proliferation of betting shops on high street shops is part of a wider, nationwide colonisation. Across Britain betting shops have been springing up in hundreds of buildings and units formerly occupied by banks or building societies, with the eclectic range of figures who have condemned their explosion – Mary Portas, Ken Livingstone, Paolo Nutini – a testament to the malaise felt over their quick and quiet assimilation into our cities and communities.
The rise of the number of betting shops can be attributed to Labour’s 2005 Gambling Act. Though introduced to provide control and restriction for problem and underage gamblers, the act also allowed for the first time bookmakers to advertise on television and radio and have four Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (or FOBTs) per shop, a high stakes gambling machine where customers can place hundreds of pounds on the spin of a roulette machine or the dealing of a deck of cards and which makes the bookmakers about a billion pounds a year. Rather than introducing more social responsibility, the liberalisation of the rules facilitated the bunching together of betting shops in deprived areas and a rise in the number of gambling addicts. The fallout from the relaxing of the rules has been so catastrophic that two MPs who helped introduce the act – Harriet Harman and David Blunkett – have since admitted that they misjudged the effects the alleviation of the law would bring.
Outside of the high street, betting shops have a tendency to congregate in areas with high rates of crime, unemployment and immigration. In the entire stretch of Byres Road there is one betting shop: a shabby-looking William Hill near Dumbarton Road, its small, plastic seats and brown interior making the place look incongruous and out-of-place next to the west end’s fashionable restaurants and bistros. (There’s also a sneakily hidden William Hill shop on Ashton Lane next to the Ubiquitous Chip that I had no idea existed until I started writing this article.) Walk the distance of the similarly sized Victoria Road – an area on Glasgow’s south side that faces well-documented economic and social challenges – and you’ll encounter seven betting shops, including three William Hills and two Ladbrokes less than two hundred metres apart.
One of my friends has recently started working for a bookmakers and he took me on a tour of some of the betting shops on Victoria Road. When I asked him whether he regularly encountered trouble from customers, he said, ‘Of course. We’re dealing with people losing money, so in that case we’re no different from banks. But here you’re paying money for a bit of paper that could potentially be worth a lot in the amount of time it takes a horse to run around a track. When your iPod breaks, you simply return to the shop with your receipt and ask for another one. If you’re gambling, you can’t ask for your money back to place another bet.’
When we enter the first betting shop I immediately realise we’ve made a mistake. It’s only midday and racing hasn’t started yet. But this doesn’t matter – there’s always something you’re being encouraged to bet on. On one of the screens there is cartoon dogs racing; on another, a race from South Africa. There’s also a live English premier league match being shown on a widescreen television that has attracted a large number of customers, all of whom are sipping a complimentary cup of tea or coffee on luxuriant sofas.
‘As you can see, bookmakers try to create a home from home for their customers. And once they’ve settled in, bombard them with betting opportunities. To be a profitable gambler you need to work hard and research thoroughly. Few punters have any knowledge of South African racing, but bet on it anyway. And most people ridicule the idea of betting on a cartoon dog running around a cartoon track in front of cartoon people, and then have twenty quid on the favourite.’
As expected, most punters are assembled around the FOBTs. One customer who can’t be more than 20 has bet, and lost, hundreds of pounds in the space of a few minutes. All of this is taking place in front of a wall with racks of GamCare and Gamblers Anonymous pamphlets, making the whole scene seem more poignant, sad and futile. It’s something my friend agrees with: ‘the FOBTs are the reason you have three or four bookmakers next to each other. If you go in one shop and they’re all being used, you just go next door. They’re the crack cocaine of the gambling world. I’ve seen students fritter away their whole week’s wages in seconds, but they still come back – they’re used mainly by the 18-24 demographic. We offer an escape from people’s mundane lives and the chance of something glorious. In that respect we’re no different from drug dealers. We’re conmen selling a dream.’
There’s an historical precedent for selling dreams during financially troubled times. One of the only industries to prosper during the Great Depression was cinema, as millions of poor, unemployed and struggling people sought release and freedom in fantastical films like The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind. In our economic slump escape doesn’t come in the form of flying monkeys or epic Civil War romances, but in the shape of bookmakers, casinos, pawnbrokers and money lending shops. The industry is enjoying a newfound acceptance that it has never experienced. Casinos are no longer only the preserve of high stakes gamblers more at home in Monaco than Mount Florida: they’ve became an essential part of a night out. Pawnbrokers are no longer dingy, uninviting shops used by people as a desperate last resort: Ramsdens sponsor the Scottish Challenge Cup, and perma-tanned geezer David Dickinson is the (albeit very orange) face of the Money Shop. And money lenders aren’t shadowy gangsters who’ll break your legs if you fail to pay back your loan with 1000% interest: they’re respectable business sandwiched between our butchers and bakers, their names emblazoned across Hearts, Blackpool and (later next year) Newcastle’s football strips.
Recently I spoke with John Mason, MSP for Glasgow Shettleston, about the growing legitimacy of betting shops in his constituency and throughout the city. In August he tabled a motion to parliament about challenging the number of betting shops in poor areas, set to be discussed in Holyrood later this year. He reaffirmed Harriet Harman’s confession that the legislation had been too liberal in changing the role that betting shops perform in a community: ‘Councils have the power to stop sex shops, or fast-food restaurants, but they don’t have any say over the number of betting shops. They consider themselves retailers, but they’re not really selling anything. It the money wasn’t going to the bookmakers it would be going somewhere else in the community. They’re siphoning money away from other, more essential amenities.’
While pointing out Shettleston is a similar size to Scotland’s most wealthy constituency, West Aberdeenshire, yet has 25 more betting shops, he’s also quick to locate betting shops as part of the bigger picture. ‘Online gambling and organisations like the National Lottery also play their role in providing hope for people in desperate lives trying to make ends meet.’ He cites the example of a member of his constituency who had won £10,000 in a bet, was having problems withdrawing the money from his online account, and so gambled it all away again. It’s for people like these that he tabled the motion, and his campaign has already received positive feedback in its attempt to give power back to the councils in deciding what shops they should have on their streets.
As Mason reiterated throughout our conversation, few people are arguing for the abolition of betting shops. Having a bet is a ritualised pastime in Britain, whether it’s buying a weekly Lotto ticket, a weekend flutter on the football or the yearly stab in the darkathon that is the Grand National. What’s causing consternation is the disproportionate and inappropriate number of betting shops on our streets, and the social, personal and financial problems that this causes. Like independent bookshops, encyclopaedias and movie rental stores, the internet should be condemning betting shops to history – Bet 365, the company endorsed by Ray Winstone’s disembodied, floating head, is worth nearly £700 million, and has no physical shops – yet they’re growing at an incendiary rate. So the next time you pass a boarded up shop and moan about the fact that it’s not open, just you wait: it’ll be a betting shop in the time it takes that cartoon dog to run around that cartoon track.