Lake Tahoe musings - a look at the UK
by Marc W. Etches

The 13th International Conference on Gambling and Risk Taking took place recently in Lake Tahoe, USA. Convening every three years, it acts as a Mecca for the international academic elite engaged in studying the impact of gambling on individuals and communities.

I returned to the beautiful ski resort high up in the Sierra Nevada Mountains straddling the Stateline between Nevada and California in the week that the Casino Advisory Panel announced its provisional short-list of eight local authorities competing for one regional casino in the UK.

I was last there almost three years ago attending a management development programme for gambling industry executives. Of fifty delegates then, I was one of only two from the UK at an event focused on examining the emerging new gambling legislation in the UK.

I subsequently wrote about my concerns that not enough effort was being made by industry, politicians, the media and public servants alike in the UK to fully understand the nature of casino operations around the world.

Nothing much has changed it seems. The public debate about the UK Government's efforts to modernise our gambling laws, particularly in relation to casinos, is as misinformed as ever.

Although it is well understood that the original driving force for change in the UK’s outdated legislation has been the obvious need to cope with new technology, the internet not least, there was fierce criticism in Tahoe for the way the UK Government has gone about tackling the issue of casinos. One speaker politely suggested that its performance to date was “an object lesson of how not to organise a party in a brewery”.

There was also strong criticism of the plethora of uninformed comment and opinion expressed in the UK media about the likely economic and social impacts of one or more regional casinos.

The evidence from around the world including South Africa, New Zealand and the USA is that destination-based regional casinos do not increase problem gambling rates when introduced in concert with public education programmes.

A great deal was also said about the need to distinguish advocacy research from scientific evidence-based research; the anonymously commissioned Hall Aitken report, much vaunted by the Conservative Party recently, which seeks to undermine the regeneration aspirations of those local authorities vying for a regional casino licence unquestionably falls in the first category.

Despite, Richard Caborn, the UK’s Minister for Gambling, rubbishing this report in the House of Commons back in March, Radio 4 gave it yet more ‘airtime’ on the day that the Midlands went to war with itself about why it has no representation on the Casino Advisory Panel’s shortlist.

In Tahoe, there was agreement that casinos – international-style casinos with significant numbers of high-payout slot machines – are capable of significant economic regeneration but success depends on the circumstances of each location. This is something the UK Government might like to reflect on as it continues to argue that one regional casino is an adequate pilot.

Professor Collins of Salford University, the conference’s key-note speaker, concluded that the only wrong number of regional casinos is one on the basis that one will not provide a satisfactory test of social impact in a number of different locations, which is explicitly what the UK Government is seeking to do.

There did seem to be a time when even the Daily Mail had settled for eight ‘super casinos’ - a complete misnomer of course as 1250 slot machines is not large by international standards and only marginally ensures the additional hotel and leisure facilities that generate significant numbers of jobs.

Biloxi, on the Gulf Coast of Southern Mississippi, devastated by Hurricane Katrina last summer has no such moral dilemmas as it seeks to rebuild, literally, its economy by reopening its many casinos bigger and better than before. Blackpool too has no hesitation about wanting to have four or five such complexes. But it seems likely that a second regional casino will not appear in the UK much before 2015!

So much for Tony Blair’s reported desire then, to encourage investment in a number of world-class entertainment venues that would undoubtedly serve to improve the quality of our tourism product in the UK.

Interestingly, the Singaporean Government, which has just announced that Las Vegas Sands has won the right to develop and operate that country’s first international casino resort at a cost of $3.6 billion, refers to the project as an ‘integrated entertainment complex’ intended to enhance the tourism industry there. Furthermore, Las Vegas Sands’ experience with international conventions is said to have tipped the licence contest in its favour.

Another speaker in Tahoe, representing one of the losing contenders for the Singapore licence, MGM Mirage, described his company as “a property developer first and casino operator second.” All in all the myopic debate in the UK does seem to have missed the point somewhat.

The UK is a mature society, 72% of which enjoy spending some of their leisure time gambling. Less than 1% of those adults who do, have a propensity to develop a problem with their gambling.

99% of us are capable of choosing to spend, not lose, our money on entertaining ourselves playing poker or roulette or a slot machine without devastating our lives. The language is important; after all, we don’t talk about losing money on a pair of shoes do we?

Of course, for those who do have difficulties in controlling their gambling behaviour within their means require support, especially when such behavior impinges on others, but let’s deal with these issues honestly.

The growth in gambling spend in the last five years has been around 15%, not the seven-fold increase erroneously, and I suspect knowingly, peddled by some who wish perhaps to constrain competition out of commercial or political self-interest.

In 2005, total money staked was in the region of £53bn compared to about £42bn in 2000. The total spent by consumers is thought to be about £8.5bn in 2005 compared to £7.5bn five years earlier.

If you are outside the UK casino debate looking in, in Lake Tahoe for instance, and were asked to allocate eight licenses with some knowledge, you would probably come up with something like the current short-list: Blackpool, Brent, Cardiff, Glasgow, Greenwich, Manchester, Newcastle and Sheffield.

It offers something for Scotland and Wales, a couple for London to chew on, Blackpool, of course, and dishes out the remainder on a reasonable geographical spread.

On a very personal note, I am delighted that Blackpool is there and, for most people at least, the UK's Capital of Fun remains the favourite. But there is no certainty in these situations as Paris knows to its cost. It would be a travesty if the town loses out but if the Government doesn't increase the number of licences available Blackpool's future hangs in the balance.

With one regional casino representing upwards of £300m of investment and 2000+ jobs, as well as the opportunity to leverage significant levels of positive community engagement it is both bizarre and disturbing that politics and commercial self-interest are contriving to stifle economic regeneration in areas that both need it and clearly want it. Certainly, most delegates at a highly knowledgeable and credible international conference appeared to think so.

Marc W. Etches
5 June 2006

Date Posted: 21-Aug-2006

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