Nick Arron, Partner & Gambling team lead at gambling licensing solicitors Poppleston Allen, tackles the high profile issue of the moment for high street operators: should local authorities have greater control over which types of business can operate in their towns? In an atmosphere of escalating hysteria about gambling, the discussion is not aided by inaccurate information passed off as evidence by the councils. Arron helps clear the path for a better understanding.
You may have seen articles in the national press recently, concerning the ability of councils to block betting shop, arcade and bingo hall premises licence applications.
The articles were reportedly a reference to the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners (APPC) and the Local Government Association (LGA) proposal to Government that councils should be able to refuse applications for new gambling premises if they judge that there are already too many in the area, with the proposals likely to form part of the Government Call for Evidence and Review of the Gambling Act 2005.
The tone of the articles is familiar, going on to suggest that at present, councils have no powers to prevent bingo halls, arcades or betting shops setting up – even if there is already judged to be an oversupply and a risk of increasing gambling addiction. It is reported that the APCC and LGA want a new licensing objective under the Gambling Act 2005 related to Public Health.
This misunderstands the powers provided to local councils by the Gambling Act 2005.
Applicants for new premises licences must apply to the local council. The police are a Responsible Authority to the application, meaning they must be notified when the applicant submits the new licence application, thus providing the police the opportunity to make comment on the application. Councils must ‘aim to permit’ the use of the premises for gambling, but this is not absolute, and they have the power to refuse applications – if there is evidence of a potential risk to the licencing objectives.
To recap, the three licencing objectives are; ensuring gambling is not a source of crime or disorder, ensuring gambling is fair and open and ensuring that children and vulnerable persons are not harmed or exploited by gambling. The police have a direct role in advising the local authority under the crime and disorder objective and regularly do so.
Local Councils can also grant licences with additional conditions attached in order to ensure the licensing objectives are met and they often do. Should operators fail to comply with those conditions or fail to uphold the licensing objectives the police or the local council, or indeed a local resident, can apply to review the licence, and seek additional conditions or even revocation of the licence, for instance if there have been repeated failings of a serious nature.
These are significant controls provided to councils. Furthermore, the betting, arcade and bingo companies must hold operating licences, granted by the Gambling Commission. The application to the Gambling Commission includes the regulator’s review of the company policies and procedures to ensure the three aforementioned licensing objectives are upheld.
Similarly, management must hold personal licences, again obtained from the Gambling Commission. There is also planning law, which provides a further significant layer of control, on how property and land is used and determining what will be built within a local council area.
Planning is particularly relevant when it comes to oversupply. All of this means that gambling premises are the most highly regulated and controlled on the high street.
Gambling is a popular leisure activity, enjoyed by many, with by far the vast majority doing so safely. There’s a real risk that the APCC and LGA positions may overstate the risks of harm from gambling in these premises. There’s rarely evidence of premises causing such problems to justify the further controls being mooted. Just consider how many gambling premises licences have been revoked (answer: very few) with the number comparing very favourably to the amount of revocations incurred by pubs, bars and nightclubs under the Licensing Act 2003, further exemplifying how well run the overwhelming majority of gambling premises are.
Gambling premises are already amongst some of the most extensively regulated on our high streets. It seems unlikely that additional regulation will justify the return on investment in terms of time and resources, especially those incurred by councils and regulators, in a bid to materially reducing what is already a low prevalence of licence revocations and harm.
As always, the additional consequence will be a reduction of investment into already struggling high streets, job losses and funds for the Exchequer – none of which is desirable in 2022.