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Hill CEO Backs Curbs on High Street Bookies

With electronic table games spreading like mushrooms across British towns and cities, William Hill CEO Ralph Topping (l.) sees the political writing on the wall. The head of the bookmaking giant is now advocating new rules to allow local governments to limit the number of betting shops in their jurisdictions.

The chief executive of UK bookmaking giant William Hill says he is opposed to the “clustering” of betting shops on British high streets and has called on Parliament to take action before the situation starts to “alienate” communities.

“I’m against betting shop clustering on social grounds,” Ralph Topping told the Daily Mail. “I can see for myself some pretty stark examples of this and I can see why people might raise localized objections.”

He suggested instead that local licensing authorities be given more power to block this process on the basis of a “cumulative impact” test.

The betting shop controversy centers on the popularity of electronic casino-style table games, known as fixed odds betting terminals, which have become the main driver of bookmakers’ profits while coming under a barrage of  criticism from politicians and community groups as a leading cause of problem gambling and other social ills.

Current law caps the machines at four per shop, which has had the opposite effect of causing the number of shops to balloon and resulting in the “clustering” effect, Topping mentioned, where shops are sprouting up on high streets in unprecedented numbers.

The issue has made its way to Parliament, with the opposition Labor Party calling for greater zoning powers for local governments to deny licenses and curbs on the machines themselves. The governing Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition has balked at any sweeping changes but has promised further study. The political pressure, however, has grown to the point where some restrictions will likely be imposed.

Topping’s “cumulative impact” test would be similar to one used for alcohol licensing and would allow shops to be rejected by local planners on the basis of “social, economic or community concerns”.

Adrian Parkinson of the Campaign for Fairer Gambling, a group in the forefront of the opposition to FOBTs, is skeptical, saying that “William Hill in particular is the cause of clustering in many areas.”

“Companies of the size of William Hill, Ladbrokes and Betfred would not be bothered by a new test,” he said. “It would only increase the value of their betting shops in an area as no one would be able to open in competition to them. It also wouldn’t solve the problem of local authorities who want to reject a betting shop facing the threat of expensive legal action from the bookmaker.”