A Northern Vegas? It can’t come soon enough
A casino found its way into headlines last year and (for once) the coverage nothing to do with addiction.
Northern Soul celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2013, leading a number of influential figures from the British culture industry (including Paul Mason) to fondly recall the moment this seminal music scene erupted in 1973. The Wigan Casino’s infamous ‘all-nighters’ served as the cradle of Northern Soul, becoming an important source of catharsis in an region beset by football hooliganism, terrorism and industrial decline.
It’s a truism that history has a way of repeating itself. In 2014, Northern England is racked by poverty, urban decay and social unrest. Funds are low and employment prospects
lower, even as the rest of Britain pulls itself out of the doldrums of economic recession. At the same time, tabloids and broadsheets alike are berating Northern residents as ‘benefit scroungers,’ lacking the will to pull themselves up by their collective bootstraps.
Meanwhile, ‘sympathisers’ from the Guardian can do little more than bleat ineffectually about welfare reform in their poverty section. However, the moralising modern Left generally ignores the fact that Northern England’s best chance for self-determination in recent memory was expunged by a New Labour Prime Minister, in a move that even Tony Blair decried as ‘the worst form of Puritanism.’
The casino that never was
The Manchester super casino was planned, funded, but never built.
Cast your mind back to 2005, when Blair’s government modernised UK gambling legislation with the 2005 Gambling Act, which contained provisions for “regional casino complexes” on British soil (colloquially termed ‘super casinos.’) Fending off competition from dozens of jurisdictions, Manchester won a 2007 competition to host the first of these super casino complexes. Supervised by psychologist and addiction specialist, Dr Mark Griffiths, Manchester City Council’s case for a regional casino promised to strike a balance between economic benefit and social responsibility.
A special Casino Advisory Panel (CAP) was impressed with Manchester’s bid, noting that it met all the desired criteria for justifying a large gambling complex. Namely, Manchester represented a catchment area “second only to London” and had “the greatest regeneration need” among the applicants. Critically, as one of England’s eight ‘core cities’ and a pivotal cog in the ‘Northern way,’ it was predicted that buoying Manchester would spearhead the regeneration of Northern England.
Of course, plans for Manchester’s super casino fell through the following year. Gordon Brown’s desire to win over the Church-going Right (coupled with his personal Presbyterian leanings) resulted in a classic top-down decision to scrap the regional casino. The abandoned project would have injected £260 million into the Mancunian coffers and provided a buffer for the encroaching economic downturn that followed. As it happened, Northern England suffered terribly from the recession and is currently lagging behind the general national recovery.
It’s no accident that, of the eight regions that made the CAP’s shortlist in 2007, half were northern territories. When laying out the pros and cons of investing in super casinos, the CAP described the following end-goals:
- Job creation.
- New infrastructure – such as hotels and conference centres.
- Growth of tourism and leisure sectors.
- Image benefits, leading to further interest and investment in the city.
Given these objectives, Northern England is practically crying out for a major casino. The dearth of employment opportunities in the post-industrial North and the decline of its domestic leisure industries (particularly seaside destinations) have compounded a general malaise that has festered since the Thatcher era.
As if to rub salt in Northern wounds, the coalition government opted to grant Britain’s inaugural super casino to London in 2011 in attempt to profit from the Olympic buzz. It seems incredible that, at a time when regional casinos would provide the greatest benefit to the struggling North, the government elected to invest further in an already bloated capital.
The straw man of England
The explanation for this is partly down to a condescending paternalism. While the CAP concluded that super casinos’ economic impacts would be “generally positive,” it was sceptical of the social impacts.
In a public document, the body expressed concern that casino development in Manchester could bring “significant distress to the host economy and community if there are no efficient measures to contain the negative impacts.” These were speculated to include: “increased levels of gambling addiction amongst vulnerable groups such as minors and those in poverty and increased crime rates in the surrounding area.”
The tenor of this language implies that deprived Northern cities must be ‘protected’ from the ‘evils’ of commercial gambling by their civilised Southern benefactors, whose relative economic stability lends them the restraint to gamble sensibly. This attitude was succinctly expressed by Tory MP Jon Redwood, in regards to the social effects of Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs) in Northern bookmakers:
“I put [the controversy] down to the fact that poor people believe there’s one shot to get rich. They put getting rich down to luck and think they can take a gamble…They also have time on their hands. My voters are too busy working hard to make a reasonable income.”
On the other side of the fence, the Guardian’s crusading stance on the FOBT debate has been equally unhelpful, with Randeep Ramesh citing the £5 billion spend on betting terminals in Northern cities and deprived London boroughs as a “tax on the poor.”
Class snobbery and well-intentioned condescension are not appropriate responses to the impact of commercial gambling in Northern England and have likely contributed to the stagnation of the sector in regions where it is most needed. As a politician, it would be career suicide to endorse the gambling market when the media seems so resoundingly hostile towards the activities of gambling brands in deprived regions.
Bring Vegas to the North
A planned super casino in Birmingham. Will it be completed?
The media furore around gambling in Northern England is wilfully dismissive of the facts. While a 2013 Deloitte study concluded that gambling losses are disproportionately high in low-income areas, the targets of media scorn and government suspicion (FOBTs and supercasinos respectively) are not the real enemies.
In a recent interview with Casino Life, Dr Griffiths attributed the Deloitte data to an overabundance of “ambient gambling experiences” in low-income regions, i.e. slot machines in pubs and chip shops. Conversely, Dr Griffiths stated that betting terminals in bookies demand a “pre-commitment to gamble,” while regional casinos present the most socially responsible option for commercial gambling in terms of “player protection and harm minimisation.” He argues that such a “centralised model” also holds the best potential for urban regeneration.
While super casino development is tentatively expanding (with two complexes already operating and a third planned for Southampton in 2015), Northern England has yet to see another opportunity for a regional casino. However, there is some cause for optimism. On a national level, Nottingham’s casino culture is second only to London (although still paltry compared to foreign offerings), while bingo halls and betting shops continue to do a roaring trade north of the Leicester border.
Still, it’s hard not to mourn what might have been. With London continuing to sap the life out of regional economies, it’s high time the government allowed fresh gambling investments to breathe a little soul back into the North.