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The Geographical Location of Gambling Machines

The First Study to be Carried out in Britain.

A report is available online of the first study ever to be carried out in Britain which has examined how gambling machines are distributed across the country and how the concentration of such machines relates to social and economic characteristics of the local population. The work was carried out by Geofutures who specialise in that kind of spatial analysis, and the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen). The report is entitled Mapping the Social and Economic Characteristics of High Density Gambling Machine Locations, and is dated November 2011. The research was commissioned by The Responsible Gambling Fund and The Responsible Gambling Strategy Board.

This is a very significant piece of research for everyone who is interested in or affected by British gambling policy. Many of us were alarmed by the liberalisation of gambling brought about by the 2005 Gambling Act and fearful of the increase in problem gambling which might come about as a result. Such an increase was predicted by the Gambling Review Body report (the Budd report) which recommended the policy changes incorporated in the 2005 Act, and the 2010 British Gambling Prevalence Survey (BGPS) produced evidence suggesting that the adult prevalence of problem gambling had increased in the previous three years by 40 to 50%. As could have been predicted, there are now stirrings of concern in the media and in some local areas. This concern has recently focused on the way in which high street bookmakers’ shops appear to be surviving well, and perhaps increasing in number in some areas, whilst other high street shops are struggling; with particular worry being expressed about Fixed Odds Betting Machines (officially termed B2 machines) in bookmakers’ shops, which effectively allow people to play virtual casino games, with relatively high maximum stakes and prizes, on a machine in the high street. The BGPS 2010 showed that people who were unemployed or on low incomes were more likely to be experiencing gambling problems and there is concern that opportunities to gamble may be disproportionately located in poorer areas, and perhaps increasingly so.

There is a lot of detail in this report about the way in which the researchers went about their task, taking steps to maximise the validity of their data, all of which appears to have been done very professionally. Collecting all the necessary data was not easy. To give just one example, although the Gambling Commission was able to provide information about the location of all the relevant premises which they license, they could not provide such information for pubs which they do not license: that information had to be provided from another source. Information about the numbers of machines to be found at different venues is also not easily available and averages had to be used (which vary from 1.5 in the average pub to 43 in the average bingo establishment and 66 in the average Family Entertainment Centre). Even an average number of machines per venue was difficult to get at for adult gaming centres (AGC s) so NatCen staff had to visit a sample and simply count them.

The analysis is complicated, but, reduced to essentials, they identified machine zones (MZs), nearly 9000 of them in England, Scotland and Wales, defined as areas with a radius of 400 metres around any gambling machine location, and high density machine zones (HDMZs), just under 400 of them, defined as those zones with more than one gambling machine per hectare. They then mapped these zones onto areas defined by the 2001 Census in order to find out whether MZs and HDMZs were disproportionately associated with local populations which differed in age, ethnicity, occupational group, or income. The results confirm the hypothesis that gambling machines are not randomly located but tend, significantly, to be more concentrated in areas where there are more people in lower status occupations, where a higher proportion of people have relatively low incomes, where there are relatively many young people living (under the age of 35), as well as relatively many aged over 75 (perhaps because of the concentration of machines in coastal towns where there are also more retired people), and where there are higher proportions of ethnic minority groups.

Just as interesting as those main results are the details which the report provides about the location of gambling machine venues and the concentration of machine numbers around the country. The report is full of interesting maps and others are available online. The picture is a fascinating and complicated one and many local factors make a difference. Venues are more densely concentrated in the main urban areas, regional centres and coastal towns, although Family Entertainment Centres (FECs) are concentrated in coastal towns, and pubs with machines are relatively evenly spread across the country. HDMZs are mostly not to be found in inner-city areas, but more often in poorer suburban or fringe areas around towns and cities, or on the coast.

One of the admitted shortcomings of this study is that the main analysis, linking social and economic characteristics of areas with the location of gambling machines, had to lump together machines of all kinds, varying from B2s, with £500 maximum prizes, found in casinos and betting shops, to type D machines, with £5 maximum prizes, allowed even in FECs. Future research will be needed to test the relationship of the distribution of different types of machine to social and economic factors. Meanwhile this pioneering study – there has been previous research in Australia, New Zealand and Canada, but never before in Britain – has confirmed the overall relationship between the siting of gambling machines and areas of vulnerability, and has given us a great deal of interesting detail about the concentration of venues and machines in different parts of the country.

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