Posted by Harry Kane on Friday, October 22, 2021
When the UK Gambling Commission (UKGC) announced its core strategic objectives through 2021, one of the most pertinent was the desire to enhance the reputation of the online gambling industry and market-leading operators.
This objective also stretched to include offline operators, which is just one of the reasons why the commission was keen on initially introducing a fixed-odds betting terminal (FOBT) cap in land-based bookmakers nationwide.
We’ll touch more on this later in the piece, but the regulator still has work to do given the prevalence of betting shops is deprived areas of the UK. We’ll explore this below while asking why it’s such a problem for the gambling industry as a whole.
The Rise of Betting Shops in Deprived Locations
According to detailed analysis concerning the geography of bookmakers in the UK (which was conducted by academics at the University of Bristol), there were more than 10,000 gambling venues located in Britain in 2020, with this higher than the number of supermarket sites open nationwide.
Of these gambling outlets, 21% of them were located in the most deprived decline of areas in Britain, while a paltry 2% were in the wealthiest. To provide some context here, 10% supermarket chains’ stores were housed in the poorest regions in the UK, while 7% were positioned in the most affluent.
Overall, the UK’s most deprived areas (by a number of key metrics) were shown to feature more than 10 times the number of betting shops than the most affluent parts of the country, despite this being direct against the wishes of most local residents (according to a further report commissioned by the Standard Life Foundation charity).
If we drill further into the numbers, we see that Glasgow had the most betting shops, with one for every 3,264 located in the city’s most deprived areas. However, players can’t receive any of the biggest online jackpots of all time while playing from small betting shops.
Liverpool, poorer regions in London and Middlesbrough weren’t far behind either, with further concern was caused by the fact that half of the 348 gambling treatment services mapped by researchers were within five minutes’ walk of licensed gambling premises.
Clearly, this is the result of design rather than accident, with significant resources having been poured into positioning premises in locations that are demonstrably deprived and likely to be home to driven and compulsive gamblers.
Interestingly, this observation can be made despite the fact that bookmakers actually showed a weaker correlation with deprivation that local bingo halls, while family entertainment centres (the type of which can typically be found in coastal towns that are statistically more likely to experience economic deprivation) and arcades followed closely behind.
The reason for this is simple; as despite being weaker, the correlation is still clearly evident and described by academics as being “statistically significant”.
Tackling the Issue and Combatting the Link Between Betting Shops and Deprivation
What’s interesting is that the vast majority of residents in deprived areas are against the plethora of betting shops that exist in their communities, suggesting that some may be opposed to the idea of ‘clustering’ bookmakers and would prefer the temptation to be removed completely. However, this is not likely to happen because the UK is one of the top 3 iGaming markets in the world.
A YouGov survey in 2018 even found that 73% of people would not want a gambling venue on their ideal high street, creating a clear instruction for relevant authorities to act and reduce the number of bookmakers in deprived areas.
Of course, these numbers also suggest that operators and gambling brands themselves are harming their own image with their overly aggressive approach, while undermining the good work of the UKGC in creating an increasingly stringent regulatory framework in the UK.
It certainly creates the perception that brands are deliberately clustering bookmakers in deprived areas, which studies suggest are more likely to be home to compulsive gamblers.
This is certainly the view of Carolyn Harris, who currently chairs a cross-party group of MPs who are studying gambling-related harm in society. “It’s an approach that’s targeting the most vulnerable in society”, she said, “both economically and those who may have a problem”.
It’s a testament to what we’ve always said, which is that the industry puts profit before people. It’s not unexpected but it’s disturbing,” she continued, and while this observation is one that would be contested by operators, it holds considerable merit when you consider the statistics and location of bookmaker stores.
The question that remains, of course, is what can be done to correct this issue? Well, there’s little doubt that the FOBT cap has inadvertently had an impact since April 2019, with thousands of bookmaker outlets having been closed due to reduced revenue and profitability. However, it’s unclear how many of these closures have been in deprived areas, especially given the most recent numbers and findings across a wide range of studies.
Beyond this, one potential solution would be to provide local councils and authorities greater autonomy to prevent gambling venues from opening up, following the consultation of locals and discussions with fellow businesses and high street stores within the region. It’s worth mentioning that politics inspired the UK’s iGaming boom in the past, and political decisions might do it again!
This may prove crucial in the current legislative climate, as it would tackle the issue at the source and provide locals with far greater control over the stores and outlets that exist on their high streets.
The Last Word
Ultimately, some may argue that the issue posed by an excess of bookmakers in deprived areas is one that will resolve itself over time, particularly given the decreased popularity of offline gambling and growing dominance of iGaming verticals (which have evolved to account for more than 38.6% of the overall industry).
However, the optics of having such a large number of bookmakers in deprived areas are incredibly poor for the industry, which has worked hard to improve its image and the way in which it’s perceived by gamblers across the board.
This is why local authorities must be empowered to take action, in order to correct the current imbalance of store locations and safeguard vulnerable players that exist offline.