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Betting on change – new legal powers for councils to stop the rise of high street bookies

It is expected that today will see an announcement giving local authorities new powers to block betting shops popping up on their high streets.

It is expected that today (30 April) will see an announcement from David Cameron, giving local authorities new powers to block betting shops popping up on their high streets.

This suggested reform will create a new class in planning law for betting shops, giving councils the opportunity to vet these applications separately, with a more rigorous eye than other applications for retailers and to ultimately reject an application if they felt they were seeing too many betting shops in one area.

This change has been much-debated – in 2010 David Lammy asked for betting shops to be reclassified – a request that was refused at the time, with the then planning minister instead recommending local authorities used Article Four directions instead. Mary Portas’ 2011 High Street Review also endorsed giving betting shops a classification of their own, calling them the blight of our high streets.

Today’s announcement presents an antidote to changes introduced just a year ago in The Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (Amendment) (England) Order 2013. This change meant that shops could be changed into betting shops, which are generally classed as financial institutions and fall into the A2 class, without permission. Before this change, a food outlet, but not a shop, could be turned into a bookies without planning permission.

So what does this change mean for councils? It is likely it will be wholeheartedly welcomed. South London MP Sadiq Khan has been campaigning to ‘Save Our High Street’ to give local authorities more control over the number of betting and pay day loan stores opening in their areas. This campaign was prompted by a large number of betting shops opening in Mr Kahn’s own constituency - 53 shops across Wandsworth with 22 in Tooting alone. Local Works, a coalition to promote the Sustainable Communities Act, has also amassed support from 63 local authorities to change betting shop planning laws.

Day-to-day this change may create slightly more of an administrative burden for councils who will have to closely examine planning applications for betting shops and assess the cluster affect a new bookies may create. Local authorities may also feel under more pressure to refuse planning permission to betting shops amid local resident’s opposition. However, with empty properties remaining an issue on the high street (Deloitte estimates around one fifth of shops left empty by big name recession era collapses are still vacant)  landlords may feel differently about local authorities refusing planning permission to a betting shop. Especially if this means the landlord will struggle to fill the property and it will lie empty.

It is worth nothing that this change is far from being set in stone – it has been met with outcry from betting shops, with it expected that Paddy Power will ask the Competition and Markets Authority to investigate amid fears this change to planning regulations would raise issues with competition law.

Today’s announcement is a sign of the times, the economy is on the up and elements of the political and public tide are turning against betting shops. Local authorities will have greater control if the changes occur although whether this change will stop the growing number of betting shops in our town centres remains to be seen.

Note, this article appeared in The Guardian’s Local Government Professional Network