FOBT Crackdown Coming

Birmingham officials have been told there is nothing they can do to stop more FOBTs from coming to its major shopping streets. At least not until the central government proceeds with its planned crusade against the lucrative and controversial electronic table games.

The UK city of Birmingham has been told that without new central government legislation they are powerless to stop more betting shops—and the casino-style electronic table games they contain—from opening in high-density shopping areas.

City Council’s Planning Committee initially voted 6-5 against an application from bookmaker Coral for a venue in the Yardley district, but planning officers said if Coral sued the city was likely to lose and would entail significant costs in doing so.

“I do not think refusal can be defended on appeal,” said Chief Planning Officer Richard Goulborn, who suggested the only guaranteed route to preventing more betting shops would be new laws at a government level.

Under current law betting shops are classed as financial services, the same as banks, estate agents and insurance brokers, and therefore are under few restrictions barring them from high streets.

Campaign for Fairer Gambling, a grassroots group dedicated to opposing the e-tables, known as fixed odds betting terminals, said Birmingham gamblers lost £53 million on the machines in 2013, an average of £776 each.

“It is these gaming machines which turn a betting shop into a mini casino on the High Street,” complained Counsellor Barry Henley.

It is a complaint echoed across municipalities nationwide and is being heard now in the House of Commons, where the government of Prime Minister David Cameron is preparing to impose limits on the machines with penalties for operators who fail to enforce them.

Reports are that Cameron has personally ordered officials and the UK Gambling Commission, the nation’s top regulator, to toughen up a new responsible gaming code instituted voluntarily by the industry in February. The code includes pop-up alerts, which flash on FOBT screens when a customer has spent £250 or played for 30 minutes. It’s expected the code will be made mandatory with violators facing possible closure. It’s possible bet sizes will be reduced as well. Stronger planning powers for local authorities could also be part of the mix.

As FOBT revenues have grown the last several years to the point where they now account for half of all bookmaker revenues there has been increasing concern about the social costs of the machines. Betting shops have boomed during the downturn, doubling their presence on the high street over the past five years. Bookies now account for 9 percent of high street floor space, up from 4 percent in 2008. There are about 33,000 FOBTs across Britain, which are generating around £1.5 billion a year in revenues.

Ladbrokes has taken in as much as £1 billion in a month from the machines, according to a leaked internal document that is ratcheting up pressure on the government to limit their proliferation. Customers played the machines nearly 5 million times in just four weeks, according to the document.

Adding to the controversy, The Guardian has cited research by Geofutures, a data analysis company, which identifies the high streets in England that are most densely packed with betting shops. London’s Chinatown topped the rankings, followed by Newcastle, Rotherham and Bradford, all described as economically deprived areas with high levels of unemployment. Newcastle has 16 shops within a few minutes’ walk of each other.

The Association of British Bookmakers denies that its members target poorer areas and said it was “important that both the industry and government act on the basis of evidence”.

The association also said that over the last three years crime in London betting shops has fallen by 32 percent.