Greg Smith is the Conservative MP for Buckingham. This is a sponsored post by the Betting and Gaming Council.
I suspect that for many people, the most noticeable way in which their lives were affected by the pandemic came when they walked down their local high street during lockdown.
Once bustling thoroughfares were reduced to silent, empty ghost towns where shops were closed, customers non-existent and traffic nowhere to be seen.
Thankfully, the easing of Covid restrictions since April means that normality is finally returning to towns and villages across the country. I regularly visit high streets and retailers in my constituency to see how the pandemic has affected them and how re-opening is going. Recently on a visit to Princes Risborough high street, it was brilliant to see the vibrant high street buzzing, with shops opening their doors and finally being able to trade again.
Along with Michael Dugher, Chief Executive of the Betting and Gaming Council, I visited the local Coral betting shop to chat with staff about what it was like being back at work for the first time this year. It was great to see customers having a flutter and enjoying some banter with friends, and also reassuring to witness the anti-Covid measures they had put in place, like hand sanitisers and Perspex screens, to ensure the safety of staff and punters alike. For so many of my constituents, going to the bookies is part of their social life and part of having fun, and I’m delighted that they can do so once again with the draconian measures now lifted.
And while the vast majority of people who enjoy a bet do so perfectly safely, I was also impressed by the responsible gambling initiatives the Coral shop had put in place to provide help to those who need it.
I have no doubt that the mention of betting shops has raised one or two eyebrows. But the reality is they are part of a healthy high street mix. The re-opening of betting shops is good news for the wider high street. Research carried out before the pandemic by ESA Retail (on behalf of the Association of British Bookmakers – one of the forerunners of the BGC) found that 82 per cent of their customers visited at least once a week, with 89 per cent of them going on to visit other shops in the area. That’s real money being ploughed into local businesses at a time when they are trying to repair the economic damage done over the past 12 months.
A report earlier this year by Ernst and Young, commissioned by the BGC, found that the UK’s 6,750 betting shops support 46,000 jobs and pay nearly £1 billion a year to the Treasury in tax. As the Treasury tries to repair the nation’s finances, that money will be more important than ever.
It was great to see businesses open again but as I have previously said in the Commons, the continued support announced by the Chancellor in the budget for hospitality and retail in the form of additional grants, extension to the Job Retention Scheme, five per cent VAT rate continuation and business rates holiday are still very much needed.
I know how difficult it has been for businesses on our high streets over the last year, and I am determined to secure them all the help they need to recover. The introduction of the Government’s new Welcome Back Fund alongside the steps above will help our high streets to reopen safely and successfully this summer as restrictions lift. This will ensure that our high streets have the support they need as we move into recovery, and build back better from the pandemic.
As we look forward to a fantastic British summer, I would encourage as many people as possible to get out and support all of the fabulous local businesses that make up their local high street – including betting shops – as we embark on a national effort to get the country back on its feet.