The Government recently published 'Gambling Protections and Controls', a document setting out the statutory measures it intends to take to ensure that regulation keeps pace with the ever evolving gambling industry, writes Dan Brown.
Given the subject matter you'd be forgiven for assuming that the reforms proposed would focus on licencing laws or advertising standards; however, it's the planning system which is given centre stage. The reason for this is that the Government has identified the clustering of betting shops on the high street and the harm caused by high-stake fixed odds betting terminals as key issues facing our communities.
In order to address this the Government plans to introduce further reforms to the planning system. These will include the removal of betting shops from Use Class A2 and the creation of a new Use Class to deal specifically with such operations. Permitted development rights enabling restaurants in Class A3, bars in A4 and takeaways in A5 use to change to this new class without the need for planning permission will also be removed. Essentially a planning application will always be required for a new betting shop, unless it is replacing an existing facility.
Whilst the introduction of measures aimed at reducing problem gambling can only be a positive thing in principle, I have to query whether the planning system is the right tool to solve this problem. Firstly, the question has to be asked; is the proliferation of this use a reality and does it justify intervention?
GPaC accepts that the overall number of betting shops on our high streets has been "stable in recent years" and indeed research suggests that the number has actually remained broadly static at approximately 9,000 for the past 10 years. Furthermore, the gambling industry does not appear to be boasting of rapid floorspace expansion with the two largest bookmakers, William Hill and Ladbrokes, announcing the closure of more than 150 shops between them earlier this year. On these figures the quantitative justification for taking action through the planning system appears questionable.
What is the likely outcome of intervention? The answer is unclear but evidence suggests that it will be difficult for local authorities to find robust grounds to resist a change of use to a betting shop within a town centre. Planning permission is of course already required to change from Use Class A1 to a betting shop and there appears to be a relatively consistent approach taken by the Planning Inspectorate at appeal. Modern betting shops are repeatedly viewed as uses which provide an active frontage, contribute to footfall, and promote linked trips to other businesses. In short, they are seen as generally beneficial to a centre's overall health.
It's hard to see how the intervention proposed by the Government will alter this perception, and what the contrary planning arguments might be. Issues of morality or the social impact of gambling are not material considerations in the planning process and it will be interesting to see whether further guidance is published by the Government setting out legitimate matters for consideration. A form of need test would perhaps represent one solution, although surely this would be challenged as anti-competitive by the gambling industry.
The detail of the proposals will be consulted upon in summer 2014, with the changes themselves taking place from October 2014. I for one hope that the planning reforms are reconsidered in favour of more stringent licencing of fixed odds betting terminals in existing and new betting shops. However, given the rhetoric contained within the Government's consultation document, I fear that the odds are stacked against this.
Dan Brown is a planner at HOW Planning in Manchester