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End clustering of betting shops on our high streets

First published on The Independent Blogs, Tuesday 28 February

Are clusters of betting shops, fast-food outlets and coffee shops taking over the high street

Are clusters of betting shops, fast-food outlets and coffee shops taking over the high street?

The high streets of the UK have been hit extremely hard from all sides lately. If competing with out of town shopping centres and the boom in internet shopping wasn’t enough, the 5,200 shops that closed last year because of the recession is another example of the old saying that bad news comes in threes.

It has become all too common in the UK to find clusters of similar shops in certain areas. All too often there is a string of bookmakers, kebab houses, tanning salons, with little diversity in between. Very few would argue that streets filled with similar shops make the area appealing to potential buyers.

A ComRes survey found that over half of participants in England and Wales felt that clusters of sex and betting shops had a negative impact on high streets. A further 36 per cent said the same of tanning salons and fast food outlets.

Last week Southwark Borough Councillor Rowenna Davis sent an open letter to Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles, highlighting that there are 77 bookmakers in her constituency.

“What’s happening is they are clustering in particularly poor areas,” she explains, “so we are pushing for the government to respond to Mary Portas’s high street review by giving more powers back to councils.”

Davis is not the only person to speak up for our town centres. MP David Lammy has expressed concerned that in his constituency of Tottenham there are 39 bookies and not a single bookshop. And even Boris Johnson has written to Mr Pickles to demand more powers for councils to counter clustering.

Chairman of the LGA, Sir Merrick Cockell explains, “Currently councils are powerless to prevent betting shops setting up.”

Clusters spring-up because of planning laws allow stores with the same ‘use’ license  to replace each. This means that when an independent café, shop or bank closes down, there is nothing the council can do about a new one opening, no matter how many shops of that kind there are already.

The principle is the same for betting shops. Currently they fall into the same category as banks, which are financial services. It means banks can be changed into betting shops without local authorities having any say in it.

The LGA is campaigning for a new ‘use’ class, or ‘super’ planning class as Sir Merrick describes it, for premises of potential future concern to local authorities. Each council would be able to add to this new class premises which their residents believe have a negative impact to their high streets.

This call seems to be widely echoed by the public, 63 per cent said they would be in favour of the government giving more power to councils to tackle clustering. But nearly three quarters of respondents were in favour of giving more powers to councils to help shape the high street based on communities’ wishes.

The public also has some strong opinions about what they would like on their high streets too. Nearly 80 per cent felt local producers would be important to the future success of their high street, followed by over 70 per cent feeling retail stores and local amenities would too.

Last year Mary Portas recommended the government to address the restrictive ‘use class’ system to make changing property uses easier, and suggested that betting shops have a ‘use class’ of their own. The rationale behind this was that many vacant lots were not being filled because changing the use required planning permission. By separating betting from the financial service class this would mean that every betting shop would have to apply for planning permission if they were changing the use of premises.

With the Department for Communities and Local Government building up to launch its response to Portas’s recommendations, a spokesman said: “We are currently reviewing ‘change of use’ and are considering views expressed on this, including betting shops.”

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