The number of high street bookmakers in Scotland continues to decline despite the popularity of fixed odd betting terminals (FOBT), industry figures have revealed.
Around 90 betting shops closed in the period from 2011-2016, mainly as a result of independent operators exiting the off-course market as the ‘big four’ firms consolidated their grip.
But the continuing growth of online gambling, fuelled by smartphone usage, has helped offset a drop in over the counter betting. Strong online trading has helped gambling companies post growing profits, with Ladbrokes Coral Group reporting a seven per cent rise in first-half operating profit last year.
Now the industry is nervously awaiting the outcome of a UK Government consultation on the use of controversial FOBTs, which offer computerised casino games such as roulette and blackjack. The machines are widely played in betting shops and have become an increasingly important source of revenue for the industry.
Campaigners want to see the maximum unit stake on such games to be reduced from £100 to £2 in a bid to reduce problem gambling. One report suggested that for every betting shop in the Glasgow, a total of £156,000 disappears from players using FOBTs.
Dumbarton Road, in the Partick area of the city, is believed to have the highest concentration of high street bookmakers in the country – with seven shops on a stretch less than a mile long.
SNP MP Ronnie Cowan has urged the UK government to “get on” with proposals to reduce the maximum unit stake.
“I urge the UK Government now to get on with announcing their proposals on reducing the maximum unit stake on FOBTs and other measures to address gambling related harm,” he said.
But Association of British Bookmakers (ABB) said its members made a “valuable contribution” to the Scottish economy, supporting almost 5,000 jobs north of the Border.
The industry body claims the recent political focus on FOBT accounts for just 13 per cent of gambling spend.
“Betting shops are continuing to close across Scotland, with the loss of jobs, taxes, rent and rates,” said Donald Morrison, spokesman for the ABB.
“Smaller independents have been hit particularly hard but even larger operators are finding market conditions difficult as more and more people switch to other gambling platforms. Nevertheless, our members continue to make a valuable contribution to the Scottish economy, supporting almost 5,000 jobs and contributing more than £115 million in taxes and business rates, and many more millions in terms of salary costs and rents – money that is re-invested back into local economies.
“However, given the shift in the market it is likely that, even without further regulation, shop closures will continue in the coming years, and if there is a significant cut in stakes on FOBTs, this will accelerate the decline of betting shops with half the retail estate forced to close and the loss of up to 2,500 jobs in Scotland.
“The focus on FOBTs is entirely disproportionate, given that they account for just 13 per cent of all gambling spend. Gaming machines were introduced to betting shops almost 20 years ago and are popular with customers, the vast majority of whom play responsibly. Levels of problem gambling have remained statistically stable over this period, but we are nevertheless determined to do more to identify and support those at risk.
“In the past year, ABB has funded counselling support for gamblers in Glasgow, worked with schools and youth groups across the west of Scotland to educate young people about the risks associated with problem gambling and organised a community responsible gambling campaign in Inverness.
“A draconian cut in stakes will cause huge economic harm but will do nothing to reduce problem gambling. Customers will simply switch from the safe, controlled environment of the local betting shop, where there are trained staff and industry leading tools to monitor player behaviour, to other forms of gambling that offer fewer safeguards.”