COUNCIL chiefs want a change in the law to curb the spread of bookmakers in South Tyneside.
They are calling for Government action to change planning laws to make it more difficult for betting firms to open up extra shops in town centres.
The push comes as new figures issued by a gambling watchdog claimed £4.5m was lost by people playing fixed odds gambling machines at borough bookies last year.
At present, under planning law betting shops are classed as A2 financial services, placing them in the same planning category as banks and estate agents.
This means they very often move into premises without requiring planning permission.
Bookmakers are then easily able to acquire a premise licence as the law states councils must “aim to permit” new betting shops.
Now, South Tyneside Council is one of 63 local authorities signed up to a campaign to put betting shops back in their own planning use class, would enable councils to refuse new planning applications from bookies.
In South Shields town centre, five bookmakers can be found within a short distance: two Ladbrokes outlets, in Fowler Street and Ocean Road; Coral in Fowler Street; BetFred in King Street and William Hill in Ocean Road.
The rise of fixed odds betting terminals (FOBTs) has also been cause for concern.
According to figures released by the Campaign for Fairer Gambling, almost £24m was inserted into such machines in the borough last year, leading to losses of £4.5m.
Bookmakers are limited to four terminals per shop, but the Campaign for Fairer Gambling says that regulation is circumvented by opening as many outlets as possible, which is what has led to “clusters” of betting shops appearing on the high street.
Coun Iain Malcolm, the leader of South Tyneside Council, said: “Betting shops are becoming a common feature of the high street and district centres.
“In other parts of the country the proliferation of betting shops are having a significant detrimental effect on the vitality of town centres.
“It’s not at that level in South Tyneside, but obviously we are mindful of what’s happening elsewhere.
“At present planning permission isn’t normally required to change a shop into a betting shop for a single continuous period of up to two years, but what we are now asking for is that these changes come under the control of the local planning authority.
“We don’t think the volume of betting shops in South Tyneside is a huge issue just now. However, vibrant town centres need to offer customers a varied mix of businesses and retail outlets.”
A spokesman for Local Works, the democracy campaign group which has amassed the support of local authorities from across the country, said: “The clustering of betting shops – particularly in poorer areas – has become a significant problem for many communities in recent years.
“The proliferation of betting shops has caused an increase in gambling addiction, leading to family and social breakdown as well as an increase in crime. It is great to see 63 councils joining forces and using the Sustainable Communities Act to address this – now government has to sit up and listen.”
Matt Zarb-Cousin, from the Campaign for Fairer Gambling, said: “Councils should not have to aim to permit new betting shops and they should not be subjected to legal challenges when they object. Alongside planning reforms, the Government should consider reducing the maximum stake on fixed odds betting terminals to £2 per spin. This would stop bookmakers opening multiple outlets on the high street.”
A spokesman for the Association of British Bookmakers said a new Code for Responsible Gambling and Player Protection had been introduced at the beginning of March and that they were always willing to work with local councils to address concerns over problematic gambling issues.