Playing British roulette

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Manchester has beaten the odds to be the probable home of the UK’s first Las Vegas-style super-casino. That looks like a good omen for the city and reflects great credit on the local council which put together an impressive proposal. But the decision reflects little credit on the government. It highlights how far the politically-charged selection process has distorted the original worthwhile aim of liberalising gambling law.

The reaction to the news of the recommended site for the super-casino and 16 other new casino locations is a sober reminder that any such contest produces fewer winners than losers. Unsuccessful councils have voiced deep disappointment. The US gambling groups associated with them spent vast sums in the hope of creaking open the UK market. Now they must ponder whether to mount a legal challenge to reopen the process.

The government-appointed panel’s recommendations were necessarily subjective. Therefore their report offers a glimmer of hope to those turning to their lawyers. Another option for the losers is to seek to curry favour with the winner. That will be much harder for AEG, the gambling group involved in the failed bid by Greenwich. Philip Anschutz, AEG’s head, must now regret entertaining John Prescott, the deputy prime minister, at his Colorado ranch, at least when it involved a gift of a Stetson and cowboy boots.

Bringing US-style gambling to Britain was never going to be easy. Back in 2001, Sir Alan Budd published a year-long study into updating the 1968 gambling laws. His conclusion, which remains sound, was that gambling was an enjoyable and predominantly harmless leisure activity for adults. But the government’s initial plans for up to 40 super-casinos attracted the wrath of the conservative press and the Tory opposition. The number of planned super-casinos slipped to eight and, after pre-election talks in 2005 between government and opposition, it shrank to a single site.

This outcome is flawed and pusillanimous. It will make it harder to judge what the impact of such casinos will be. The Casino Advisory Panel’s remit in choosing locations for the new casinos was to select a good mix of places in order to gauge the casinos’ effect on the regional economy. Having just one location for the super-casino is hardly a sound basis for such a test. Nor has the slimmed-down version won ministers plaudits from the conservative critics they sought to placate.

More broadly, it makes no sense to ration the number of casinos in order to combat the rise of gambling addiction and indebtedness. Only about three per cent of the population try their luck in casinos and the increase in “problem gambling” is a function of the exponential growth on online gaming. In liberalising gaming law, the government had a potentially winning hand. It has played it poorly.

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