“Balham is my 'village' and I use it daily for shopping, dining and community engagement,” said Kevin Fitzpatrick of Fieldhouse Road, Balham.
“The addition of yet another betting shop will add nothing positive.”
He's talking about a planning application submitted by Coral Bookmakers on May 2. The proposed location is on Balham Station Road, replacing a dry cleaners and directly next to The Moon Under Water pub.
What's more, a gambling arcade, Cashino, is just down the road. The close proximity of these businesses is giving both shop owners and residents a cause for concern.
Have you recently noticed an increase in certain types of stores on your high road? Odds are, you’ve seen new charity shops, betting shops and chicken take-aways sprouting everywhere. It’s no coincidence, it’s happening all across Britain.
In a report made by PricewaterhouseCoopers, between December 2012 and February 2013, 77 new betting shops opened across Britain - and presently there are almost 9,000 in total.
It’s got to the point where betting shop companies are apparently fighting between themselves to take high street shop fronts. However, aside from the owners of these businesses and their landlords, very few people are pleased to see new bookmakers appearing.
Deborah Suggate filed a complaint about the planning notice. "It already feels like running a gauntlet of drunks when passing by," she wrote.
She added that the placement of the Coral Bookmakers is deliberate, to prey on vulnerable people who frequent the pub and the gambling arcade.
However, there’s little any of those who disagree can do about it – and it all comes down to how planning works.
A Class Act
All buildings in the UK have a Use Class dictating the use of the building. Retail is in one class, restaurants and cafes are in another, and so on. You require planning permission to change land from one class to another, which can be denied, if the local authority feels it’s a bad idea.
However, you can convert a building to anything in the same class without having to ask permission. The problem is, betting shops are categorised so they’re in the same class as a lot of different business types – so anything from restaurants to estate agents to banks can be turned into a betting shop.
Fortunately, the Balham dry cleaners that Coral wants to convert is of a different Use Class, forcing the company to go through the Wandsworth Council planning department. Still, many councils are looking into possible solutions to stop betting shops (and other overly common businesses) from going out of control.
An On-going Fight
The Greater London Authority put out a report in March showing concern for the increased rate of shops closing on high roads. It cites shop diversity as a requirement for good high street growth, and suggests that borough councils gain stronger planning powers to limit too many of the same kind of business from appearing.
The only defence councils have against betting shops is something called the ‘Article 4 direction’. The rough idea is arranging a zone under special circumstances, where certain types of building changes are required to submit a planning application, even if they wouldn’t otherwise.
It won’t surprise you that getting clearance for an Article 4 is lengthy, expensive and fraught with headaches.
In another borough of London, Merton Council did research into how severely betting shops were affecting them. Funnily enough, Merton has one of the lowest concentrations of betting shops in London.
"It's important to have a diverse high street,” said Councillor Andrew Judge, a cabinet member for environmental sustainability and regeneration.
“It's equally important that Merton's town centres meet the needs of our residents and visitors.”
But councils are starting to fight back against the seemingly unstoppable surge of unfavourable businesses. Multiple borough councils across London have backed the idea of giving betting shops their own Use Class, forcing them to go through the planning committee and giving councils and the public a chance to refuse.
Mayor Boris Johnson is even trying to haul in the reins of betting shop proliferation by demanding a change to the Gambling Act 2005, which presently does nothing to prevent clustering of gambling establishments.
With Concerns Elsewhere
However, Wandsworth Council seem to be less concerned about the subject.
“From a planning perspective, it hasn’t appeared to be an issue,” said Sarah Dixey, of Wandsworth Council planning department.
“Take-aways are more of a concern.”
Similar to Merton Council, Ms Dixey considered Wandsworth to have a low concentration of betting shops, though a precise figure wasn’t given. As such, they have no present interest in backing the lobby to have the law for the betting shop Use Class changed.
“Our town centres are reasonable successful, with low numbers of vacancies,” she added.
They do use the Article 4 direction, but for something entirely other than high street management – the direction allows for them to conserve designs on older houses.
So will the voices of the public be heard? Possibly. For standard planning applications, Wandsworth has an average turnaround of eight weeks. At time of writing, that means there are another four weeks for concerned locals to have their say.