Towns like Blackpool show how important our industry will be to the post-Covid economic recovery.
My recent visit to Blackpool was a real trip down memory lane. It was the first time I’d been to the popular seaside resort since it used to host party conferences many years ago.
I embarked on an overnight trip at the invitation of Scott Benton, the MP for Blackpool South, to visit the Grosvenor Casino and a William Hill betting shop and am delighted to say that the town has been transformed since my last visit. A sparkling sea, well-sculptured promenade, great hotel and a very warm welcome.
Scott had led a Westminster Hall debate on the UK casino industry as we all prepare for the final lifting of Covid restrictions on July 19. He pointed out that the casino sector employs over 11,600 people across the country and before Covid was contributing £500 million a year to the Treasury in tax. Supported by a number of other MPs, he gave his support to the Government’s ongoing review of the 2005 Gambling Act 2005, pointing out that it’s an ideal opportunity to update the legislation governing how casinos operate.
He said there needs to be more consistency to allow the same number of gaming machines in all casinos (some are still regulated under the Gaming Act 1968), changes to allow payment methods other than cheques to be used by international customers and permission for sports betting. In response, John Whittingdale – the DCMS minister leading the Gambling Review - stressed the importance of casinos as a significant tourist attraction, how badly they were hit during Covid, particularly when the 10pm curfew was in place, and that if there was to be a super casino (subject to demand), then Blackpool was the place where it should go.
The Grosvenor Casino is an oasis of calm hospitality. All casino operators have spent millions of pounds making their venues Covid-secure for staff and customes, and this was evident during my visit. I had a wonderful conversation with a customer who has worked in construction on the south coast, has five children and 10 grandchildren. Now on his own, he was not keen on a pub, but sees the casino as a place for social interaction. He has made many friends and was hugely complimentary of the team and staff and how well he was looked after. The casino has a great restaurant too and has plenty of sport to watch on large screens.
The following morning I visited the William Hill. Betting shops are a vital part of the high street and will play an important role as the Government seeks to repair the economic damage done by Covid. Research by ESA Retail has shown that 89 per cent of betting shop customers also visit other local shops, providing a huge boost to these businesses. Across the UK, they support 45,000 jobs, pay nearly £1 billion in tax, pay around £60 million in business rates and contribute £350 million to horseracing through the betting levy, sponsorship and media rights.
Scott Benton joined us here too and, like myself, observed how the highly-trained staff look out for any signs of problem gambling. It was good to see constant reminders of the help available from GambleAware and messages about making sure you take a break. Having a flutter is clearly an important part of the social fabric of Blackpool – customers spending their leisure time as they wish, but staying safe too.
Scott is chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Betting and Gaming, but he is also campaigning to re-open Blackpool airport and for the party conferences to come back to the town. He clearly sees the value in inward investment, economic success as we emerge from the pandemic and a constituency underpinned by hospitality and tourism thanks to businesses such as Grosvenor Casinos owner Rank and William Hill.
Brigid Simmonds is chairman of the BGC