Both the City of London and Canary Wharf loom large where I live in East London; the gleaming glass and soaring towers speaking of power, wealth and opportunity. But down at ground level it’s a very different story. All across this part of London high streets have been slowly but surely taken over by a toxic combination of betting and loan shops. These vampire businesses are sucking the life out my community and unless the Government make one simple change there’s nothing anybody can do about it.
My closest high street, Bethnal Green Road, is a classic example of the wider problem. In just a ten minute walk you pass five payday lenders and seven betting shops – sometimes with multiple branches of the same company just a stone’s throw away from each other. Sadly such a sight is hardly unique to my area – it’s become commonplace in economically deprived communities up and down the country.
The results have now been very well documented. For payday lenders, the Office of Fair Trading last year reported that one in three of the 100 million loans taken out every month are not paid back in time, often trapping people in spirals of debt and desperation. On betting, an investigation found that over £240 million left the constituency of Bethnal Green and Bow in 2012 through gambling shops, more than 10 times the number in richer constituencies.
With such terrible economic and social effects you would imagine that local councils would be doing everything they can to stop these businesses from taking over the high streets. And you’d be right – they are. But the truth is that the national planning framework is stacked against them, so that every time they block a new shop they get taken to an appeal tribunal and eventually lose out. Newham Council’s recent fight with Paddy Power is just one in a long list of examples. The fundamental problem is that both betting shops and payday lenders are currently classified as ‘financial institutions’ and so face very low regulatory hurdles when opening up new branches.
The solution to this is both simple and painless. All Eric Pickles and the Department for Communities and Local Government would need to do is to take payday and betting shops out of their current category and put them in a new ‘miscellaneous’ classification. Then local communities would have the power to decide how many of these businesses they really need. What could be more fitting for a Government that prides itself on localism?
As much as I’d love to, I can’t claim the credit for this idea - Mary Portas suggested it to the Government in her independent review of the high street back in 2011. So the question for Eric Pickles is why he’s chosen to ignore this and let the vampires run rampant on our high streets. Perhaps you might like to join me in asking him on Twitter during the Christians on the Left Community Summit at 7pm on Tuesday 18th February with the hashtag #CrosswithVampires…
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