On gambling licenses, localism is a risk with no reward

(C) Corpse Reviver

By Alex Bryan

This week, the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee published a report analysing the 2005 Gambling Act, which liberalised UK gambling laws considerably. The report concluded that the law introduced ‘numerous inconsistencies’, and suggested that gambling laws abandon what Committee Chairman John Whittingdale called their ‘reluctantly permissive’ tone urging further deregulation of the industry.

The recommendations which the Committee puts forward are predictable, but no less dangerous for it. The liberalisation of gambling laws to allow more fruit machines in betting shops or to lower license fees for independent bookmakers would do nothing other than encourage gambling. The current laws do not restrain anyone from gambling – as Tom Chivers argues in his article in the Telegraph, there is already ample opportunity to gamble in this country. These proposals being implemented, rather than being liberating, would help to trap those susceptible to gambling addiction.

Perhaps even more insidious than the proposals themselves was the suggestion that future gambling decisions and reforms be made on a local level. Localism has been one of the many undeveloped themes of Cameron’s government, and has mainly been used as a foil for the idea of the ‘big society’. It can be seen in play in substantive policy though; the radical introduction of elected mayors and elected police chiefs is an example of localism in action.

The notion feeds off the idea that London based, privileged politicians cannot possibly know as much about a community or city as those who live in it. This is of course, true in some senses. Communities are diverse, with various cultures, needs and histories which must be taken into account when certain decisions are made. Some subtleties of local life are almost impossible to determine from the outside.

There is a place for local decision making in politics. However, in many cases, localism simply appears to be an attempt to pass the buck, the shirk responsibility and give the power (and consequently the blame) to the communities. Localism should not simply be a mechanism for government to keep its hands clean while bad policies are implemented.

Perhaps most importantly, localism should only be introduced when there are genuine differences in different parts of the country on an issue. This is the reason why Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland have their own Parliaments – there is a clearly different culture in these places than from in England. The religious aspect of Northern Ireland in particular demonstrates how local or devolved decision making has a place in making sure the nuanced sensitivities of different areas is reflected in policy.

But gambling is the same everywhere. Local councils all over the country would be tempted by the prospect of a big increase in tax revenue to liberalise gambling restrictions, allowing more machines and more betting facilities to be introduced into the community. The Select Committee report claimed that ‘the decision as to whether a casino would be of benefit to a local area should be made by local authorities rather than central diktat’.

Why? Surely if too many local authorities decided to build casinos, the economic benefits of them would dramatically increase, and profit would be slim if there was any. Walk down a high street in any English town and you will see a betting shop or casino, if not both. This is the same all over the country. The decision would be based on the same principles in every town in the country. So why not maintain it as a nationwide issue?

Using localism as a way of keeping clear of nasty decisions is one which will inevitably result in bad consequences. The many people who will turn into gambling addicts through the sheer availability of betting arenas if the gambling laws are liberalised will not be heartened by the fact the decision was made by local politicians rather than national ones.

But in many ways the specific case of gambling laws is simply one out of possibly many decisions which could be ‘localised’, resulting to poor results, when they should really be dealt with on a national level. Accountability disappears when decisions such as these can be deferred from Parliament.  Localism as a mechanism has no useful function in this instance, and the entire concept of local decision making might be sullied by the government mistreating it. A truly successful approach to localism depends on a national government willing to make sure some decisions are made nationally.


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