2011 marks the 50th anniversary of the introduction of licensed betting shops onto the UK high street, and in this 50th year politicians have launched a number of attacks on the high street bookie and the apparent clustering of betting shops in low income areas.

In November 2011 Harriet Harman MP (Labour, Camberwell and Peckham) produced a report entitled “The Problem of Betting Shops Blighting High Streets and Communities in Low-Income Areas”, making very clear her stance on the issue. Harman was part of the Labour government that introduced the Gambling Act 2005.
The report’s summary states: “the lives of many of the people in those [low income] areas are also blighted by the problem gambling that they [betting shops] exacerbate”. 

Fixed odds betting terminals (FOBTs, B2 category machines) come in for particular attack and Harman’s report calls for the current government to lower limits on stakes and prizes for B2 machines in betting shops. A betting shop is currently limited to four machines per shop.
In October 2011 London Mayor Boris Johnson called for changes in planning law to halt the spread of betting shops in the capital.
“I recognise that betting shops have an important role to play in our culture … but there is a balance to be struck between having betting shops as a part of the high street retail mix and the negative impact they can have on shoppers and visitors when they start to dominate,” Johnson said. 
Under the current planning laws and Gambling Act 2005 it is already possible to object to new betting shops.
Many of the politicians’ attacks focus on the detrimental effect that betting shops have on “communities”. But anybody who takes an interest in the history of betting shops knows that they have played an integral part in creating a sense of community on the high street.
In the current economic stagnation, it might have been expected that politicians would welcome a sector of the economy that is filling units left vacant by other recession-hit retailers, providing jobs in low-income areas, and paying taxes to the Treasury.
Leading clothing retailer Arcadia recently announced that it anticipates closing 260 stores over the next three years in towns that were no longer prime locations. The retailer has already closed 66 stores in the past 12 months. 
At the start of November 2011 the Financial Times reported that landlords were offering nominal rents of just £1 because “with the number of boarded-up shops proliferating on high streets, retail landlords have become desperate to avoid paying business rates on empty units and are happy to sacrifice the rent”.
Would politicians argue that an empty shop is preferable to a betting shop as a means of preserving their “communities”? Some maybe would. 
Of course, no-one is press-ganged into going into a betting shop in the first place, nor to use their service. Just as no-one is forced to use the bargain pound-shops, mobile phone stores or fast-food takeaways that dominate the UK high street. As with any retailer, if there is no demand for a service, then the betting shop will close.
Whilst the perception in some quarters is that betting shops are “booming” and spreading somehow unchecked across UK high streets the fact is that betting shop numbers have remained largely unchanged in recent years and have fallen substantially since the mid-1990s. 
• In 1961 there was one betting shop for every 5,999 people in the UK. 
• In 2001 there was one betting shop for every 6,739 people in the UK. 
• In 2010 (latest population data) there was one betting shop for every 7,057 people in the UK.
  
By coincidence, the number of betting shops in operation today is almost exactly the same – around 8,800 – as were in operation during the first year they were legalised in 1961.