They seem to be everywhere. Few other businesses can claim to have a presence on almost every high street in the country, from the poshest city centres to the bleakest estate parades. It’s not unusual to see several of the same chain on a single street – and Lavender Hill is no exception. There’s a William Hill at 15 Lavender Hill, and another one about four blocks away at 131 Lavender Hill. Ladbrokes have a branch at each end of Lavender Hill. And around the station there’s a Paddy Power, yet another William Hill, and a Betfred.
But not for long.
Betting shops are unusual businesses. There’s nothing perishable, and running costs are low. But they pay staff, rent, and business rates like any other business. They’re inherently vulnerable to online competition. The traditional bets on the horses have been bringing in less and less money in recent years – instead, most of the stores have come to rely on the income from the slot machines – ‘Fixed Odds Betting Terminals’, or FOBTs. These typically take a cut of 3-10% of all bets placed, and with each stake between £1 and £100, they were sometimes fabulously profitable!
Maybe too profitable for the shops, which is why the government has been keen to regulate them for a while. The prospect of losing hundreds of pounds within minuted was just too tempting for some. At first, their numbers were limited to four machines per shop. This probably encouraged the spread of betting shops, as if you had three small shops close to each other, you could have twelve machines rather than four…
But it wasn’t to last. From April this year, the rules were changed – and the maximum bet on FOBTs was reduced from £100 to just £2. This means that a lot of previously profitable shops have suddenly become loss making – and this week, both the branches of William Hill on Lavender Hill announced they were closing down. Chances are more closures will follow.
Betting shops have always divided opinions. Some of the people we’ve spoken to about these closures see it as a good thing – reducing the number of high-stakes betting opportunities will, after all, make it harder for those who can’t manage their gambling to lose money (FOBTs have, after all, been described as the ‘crack cocaine’ of gambling). The impact of problem gambling can be devastating, to those affected and everyone around them. Others saw these shops as adding very little value to Lavender Hill, and (as drinking was banned) indirectly leading customers to drink offsite in local side streets.
But it’s clear that many will be sad to see these go. Obviously it’s a loss of business rates, and jobs for those who managed the shops. There’s clearly also a social side to these businesses – at least for the regular customers, some of whom have been customers for many years. Betting shops (and the fees they pay for the live streaming of racing) are an important source of income for the racing sector, which will lose millions of pounds of annual income. Some argue that all that will happen is that the gambling will be pushed online, where it’s even less regulated and without the presence of store managers trained to recognise ‘problem betters’, gambling addicts could lose even more money.
Wherever you sit on this issue, the once-ubiquitous high street betting shop looks set to become a much rarer sight in the future.