You might have read about Ken Livingstone's recent visit to the now former Railway Tavern, which has just turned into a Paddy Power. I'm sad to see the pub go, partly because I used to know the landlady (hello Tina) and partly because I agree with Livingstone - and with Jules Pipe Lammy who was also on the scene - that the proliferation of betting shops is going too far. That said, the arguments for halting it need to be solid. Do they really encourage crime and anti-social behaviour? If they do, wouldn't restricting the number of high street bookies just send it elsewhere? Some politicians, including the more libertarian Tories, would probably maintain that these things are better left to the market and point out that betting shops close down as well as open in response to local demand (though they might find a stroll down Chatsworth Road enlightening). Others would complain that do-gooders have no business depriving the working - or non-working - man of a traditional pleasure (a workerist position) or that the real growth in betting is online so getting agitated about a few more high street shops is missing the point (a betting industry view).
Livingstone framed the issue in terms of giving local people more say over the character of their own high streets. This would mean strengthening the planning and licensing powers of the boroughs, enabling them to block further incursions by betting shops in consultation with residents. For him, this wasn't about proposing some kind of backdoor prohibition but enabling citizens to resist the financial muscle of big businesses when they felt this was not in their neighbourhoods' best interests."If you leave it to the market no one can take an overall view about a town centre," he said. "Without that, you're going to end up with shopping centres which don't reflect the needs of the local community. We've got some wards in the East End of London, the very poorest wards, where there are no fresh food outlets anywhere. I think the Council should have the power to to say, 'we've got enough of this'." He added that this would help bring down local rents to levels that, say, independent fruit and veg shops can better afford.
Mayor Pipe explained why it's so difficult for local authorities to stop more betting shops from opening. In Use Class terms they fall into the same category as banks. That's why the Council could do nothing to prevent Corals moving in to the Old Town Hall building, which had of course previously been occupied by HSBC (an before that the Midland). The new Paddy Power didn't need Council permission either, as the Use Class it falls into is deemed to be less potentially problematic than a pub. And while it's possible for a Council to object to betting shops on social grounds, it isn't easy to do so successfully and the costs involved can be very high. He'd like additional powers and Ken pledged to lobby for these to be included in the devolution package the government is preparing in relation to London's mayoral and boroughs. Livingstone's localism?
So how about extending the principle to include greater controls over all types of high street trader? Should Councils be able to do more to prevent the incursions of the supermarket giants if local opinion is that their arrival would do more harm than good? Livingstone observed that if a Tesco is squeezing out existing grocers and foodstores that's a matter for a concern, but that it can also be the case that it can bring more trade into an area. He added that he suspected that in some cases supermarkets might be taking up premises that would otherwise go to yet another a betting shop. Mayor Pipe was well aware that the Tesco debate is very live in the environs of Clapton Pond just now. "What would be good is to have some sort of powers to reject things of say a certain size that would overwhelm local trading," he said.
Also on the scene were Councillor Nilgun Canver, who is Haringey's cabinet member for neighbourhoods, and Tottenham MP David Lammy who has been banging the drum about betting shops for a while (and is also chair of Livingstone's campaign to become Labour's challenger to Boris Johnson in 2012). He made the point that the bookmaker and the supermarket issues relate to a larger question about rent levels in poorer areas and the arguments for exerting more control over them. This applied to private accommodation as well as "local traders and the prices they have to pay on Tottenham High Road or Hackney Mare Street. There is a debate about rent control that we ought to be having, remembering that great cities like New York still have a degree of that. I'm quite happy to kick Terry Leahy and Tescos frankly. I had a passionate row with Terry Leahy about the proliferation of fast food shops on high streets and what that's doing to our young people's diets. In the end, when times are tough, you must give local people the democratic power to determine what's on their high streets."
Sounds like a decent argument to me. Others may feel differently...