Ed Miliband told the Guardian this week: “Local people have got be able to have more say … about 24-hour drinking and nightclubs, and what is changing in their area.” It is a pity Labour didn’t think of that in 2005 when they changed the law to reduce local control over gambling and started the gradual destruction of Deptford High Street.
Roots reggae blasts out of the butcher’s shop, women with south London accents haggle for a good price on knitwear, anarchists share cake in the newly occupied job centre and the heavy scent of marijuana mixes with delicious waft of fried onion. Welcome to Deptford high street, where you can buy anything from second-hand sex toys to fresh tofu.
The beloved thoroughfare is a bastion of retail independence and a smorgasbord of multiculturalism if ever there was one. You’ll find everything here from a cute retro clothing boutique to a cafe located in an old train carriage, a specialist sewing machine shop, to a bespoke tattoo parlour, and all the oriental food-stores, Jamaican bakeries, fishmongers, African restaurants and art galleries in between.
It’s exactly the kind of atmosphere that David Cameron evoked with his Start Up Britain speech, when he vowed that economic recovery would be led by small firms and entrepreneurs. He insisted that the government will be: “Getting behind the doers and the grafters who are going to get our economy moving and create the jobs and the wealth and the opportunity that we need.”
But step back from the bustle and you’ll notice a number of facades bearing names like William Hill and Paddy Power. Betting shops have taken root round here; there are seven on the high street alone, with more nestled in the immediate surrounding area. While they have a right to stake a claim in any local economy, they have invaded Deptford en masse. It’s got to the point at which they are threatening to destabilise the vibrant texture of the high street and the very solution that Cameron thinks is crucial in helping Britain out of the slump.
“The companies that run betting shops have no interest in the fabric of the community. They take money out without putting it back in.” Sue Lawes has lived on the Crossfields Estate in Deptford for over three decades. She has seen the betting shops proliferate over the last few years and is convinced of their negative effect. “We’ve got nothing against betting shops but we’re against having so many of them in a row,” she goes on, before comparing her part of south east London to the Sunset Strip.
Sue is one of the locals responsible for starting a campaign aimed at persuading Lewisham borough council to curb the number of bookies that are springing up in Deptford. Through the extensive community blog that she helps run, she has documented how the influx of betting shops has affected the area. She writes about a number of different ills, all of which fellow residents will attest to. The word on the high street is unanimous.
Pragmesh Patel works at Kim’s Newsagent. It is one of the retailers that is directly affected by the increase in betting outlets. “We keep our alcohol prices up to stop drunk people coming over from the betting shops to buy any more,” he says. “We have to be careful. We tell them to stay out.” Mr Patel points out that fighting in the high street and thefts from his shop are commonplace. When he speaks he looks weary and sounds cynical, as if he’s talked about the situation many times before. “We don’t want any anymore betting shops. But at the end of the day, I think the council are just going to let them in anyway.”
Just up the road at High Street Florist, which is stuffed to the brim with fresh flowers and fruit ‘n veg, manager Ralph Gomes gives further examples of anti-social behaviour: “The betting shops encourage unsavoury characters. They all stand around with cans of beer in hand, making comments at every woman who passes by. A lot of women won’t walk on the same side of the street as them. They aren’t very pleasant.” He points over to the Coral opposite and notes that it used to be a popular cafe and gallery before the owner upped sticks and moved to Shoreditch.
The locals are also acutely aware that the very being of their environment is changing too. At the Heelbar, a traditional cobbler that hums of shoe polish and leather, proprietor Harmesh Chauhn makes his feelings clear: “I don’t think the betting shops enhance the area. I would rather have a diverse range of shops to keep bringing customers here.” Darren Marsh, who works surrounded by swathes of white lace in Iriss Curtains, also makes his opinion clear. He says, quite simply: “I think there are too many betting shops. They put people off coming to the high street.”
The situation has been called “ridiculous” by Darren Johnson, a member of Lewisham Green Party and councillor for Brockley. “We have a complete imbalance; the high street doesn’t reflect the needs of the local community,” he says. “Councillors need more power. Legislation needs changing to give the local authority more leeway on whether they can reject betting shop applications.”
Any attempt to block more betting shops from opening is undercut by the 2005 Gambling Act which, although acknowledging that outlets should be not be ‘associated with crime or disorder’, states that no thought should be given to whether there are too many bookies in a specific area or not. The rule that did allow such consideration was included in the Betting, Gaming & Lotteries act 1963 and the Gaming act 1968, both abolished and replaced by the 2005 act under the last Labour government.
Since then betting shops have spread like wildfire. Other areas in London have also been overrun such as Hackney, Chinatown and Haringley. Since the 2005 act bookies have rocketed in number, causing concern not just within communities, but with the politicians who represent them too. In his bid to become the next Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone has pledged to fight for more power to be granted to councils to oppose the opening of betting shops and Diane Abbott, MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, has been consistently vocal about the issue, which is close to becoming the main agenda for many Londoners with even a passing interest in their environment.
In Lewisham borough (where Deptford is located), the council is desperate for laws to stop the spread of betting shops. They tried, in 2009, to get the Gambling act changed to include consideration of the level of demand for a new bookmaker and the introduction of a cap on the number of gambling outlets. The proposal was co-ordinated by Ute Michel, who was then Green Party councillor for Ladywell. She said in a statement: “[This campaign] is about the devastating effect on the economic health of local shopping parades and neighbourhoods when bookie after bookie lines a street, crowding out other goods and services and eroding the sense of place and community.”
In Februrary, she received a response from the Department for Communities and Local Government which made some positive points but suggested no change to existing legislation.
Deptford high street is unique in that it features very few chain-stores. It is built upon the small businesses and entrepreneurs that David Cameron is urging into action. In a recent study entitled Clone Town Britain, the New Economics Foundation found that Deptford was one of the most diverse areas for shopping in London and it is exactly that kind of atmosphere that residents like Sue Lawes and local politicians like the Green Party’s Darren Johnson and Ute Michel want to protect.
David Boyle, editor of Radical Economics, highlights the danger that betting shops pose to local economies: “Gambling drives out profitable business. There’s a tendency for it to push out other things. It’s good to have lots of locally owned shops. Money stays circulating around a community longer.” In a poor, working-class area like Deptford, that is crucial. Boyle says that the independent business that has been nurtured in the area is exactly what consumers want: “People want to invest in places that seem real. That bustle makes a place more exciting. But there’s not a great deal of understanding within government about what kind of businesses improve and extract from community.”
If a change in legislation were to occur, now would be the time. Public (and some political) opinion within London has reached boiling point, especially in Deptford. Here Betfred are the latest company to apply for a place on the high street. The campaign that Sue Lawes helps co-ordinate raised over 1000 signatures and 74 letters of objection. Those involved are currently celebrating because Betfred’s application has been denied.
The difference this time is that Betfred wanted to change the use of a building from financial and professional services into retail. Thus, their application was processed by the planning department who were able to refuse on the grounds that there are already too many betting shops on Deptford high street and that their presence is contributing to anti-social behaviour. Had a request been passed via the licensing department they would not have had the power to turn it down.
Although the campaign has won this time, Sue Lawes isn’t sure how long she can carry on fighting: “I haven’t got the energy. I haven’t got the time.” And she knows that Betfred can still make an appeal: “They can go to court a million times and still come out on top. Councils have less and less money to fight them.” Her voice is sceptical and weary. If the government wants to encourage local economies, it should be taking steps to counter the betting shops that threaten small businesses in places like Deptford. Without a change in legislation, the community is entering a battle it might not ever win.