Greg Smith: Betting shops are helping the high street get back on its feet

16 Jun

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.

It’s too soon to judge how the boundary review will impact the next election – but it’s fun to try

8 Jun

There was some excitement in this morning’s papers about the impact of the proposed reforms to constituency boundaries. Suggestions that Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, might lose his seat have made headlines.

Expert psephologists are being rather more cautious about projecting any partisan impact of the changes. These are, after all, only initial proposals. Whilst MPs won’t get an opportunity to vote the Boundary Commission’s eventual map down, the parties do now have an opportunity to feed back.

Historically, the Conservatives have not always handled this process well. Anthony Seldon, in his book Major: A Political Life, noted how in the 1990s: “weak local organisation and coordination led to the fumbling of the opportunity presented by the Boundary Commission review.”

With discipline breaking down as the post-Thatcher era began, apparently there was at least one instance of two associations turning up to a boundary meeting with separate barristers. As a result, an anticipated 40-seat gain for the Tories ended up being a mere five.

There may be a lesson there for today. Not because of a similar risk of association infighting – the process is, like everything else, much more centrally organised these days, and is in the hands of the veteran Roger Pratt at CCHQ. But because there’s also another reason not to jump to conclusions about “the biggest shake-up of boundaries in decades”, which is that the old logic of the reforms has been rather overtaken by the 2019 election.

When the plans were first mooted under David Cameron (alongside the unsaleable intention to cut the number of seats), equalising constituency sizes hurt Labour, which won large numbers of disproportionately small seats, and thus boosted the Conservatives. But with the Tories having broken through in a lot of those seats at the last election, that happy outcome is now much less certain.

And when we examined this question as part of our ‘Securing the Majority’ series last summer, some MPs also warned that a serious boundary shake-up could wipe out the first-term dividend newly-elected parliamentarians often enjoy.

So a full picture of the partisan impact of the changes will have to wait. But it nonetheless interesting to take two snapshots of the battlefield – one in the ‘Red Wall’, and one in the ‘Blue Wall’ – and prognosticate a little. Follow along at home with this very handy interactive map, courtesy of Election Maps UK.

Blue Wall

For the latter, let’s look at true-blue Buckinghamshire. All seven seats here returned Conservative MPs at the last election, and most by comfortable margins. What impact are the proposed changes likely to have?

Overall the county gains a seat, rising to eight. This has been done by carving the new seat of Princes Risborough out of the southern parts of the Aylesbury and Buckingham constituencies.

Despite this Milton Keynes notionally loses one, with Ben Everitt’s seat of Milton Keynes North, already a county constituency, shedding its remaining territory in the town and becomes Newport Pagnell, likely to be rock solid. Meanwhile Buckingham would absorb parts of the old Milton Keynes South to become Buckingham and Bletchley. Given that Greg Smith enjoys a majority of over 20,000, this is unlikely to cost him much sleep.

Milton Keynes South, what’s left of it, becomes just Milton Keynes. As a more urban seat it is likely to be closer to Labour than it was, although Iain Stewart’s comfortable majority of 6,944 ought to see him through.

Aylesbury changes shape quite dramatically, shedding a swath of southern territory. The new seat is much more concentrated on the town itself, and may also therefore be more competitive for Labour.

Both Chesham and Amersham and Wycombe remain roughly the same, although the latter becomes ‘High Wycombe’ – a rare example of the Boundary Commission’s enthusiasm for longer names being a force for good. It is the county’s most marginal seat and will probably continue trending away from the Party. On the other hand, Beaconsfield becomes Marlow and South Buckinghamshire for no obvious reason.

Overall then, little for CCHQ to complain out. These changes might put one or two seats slightly closer to the opposition, but this is probably offset by creating a new, quite safe Tory seat.

Red Wall

Now let’s look at an offensive battlefield: South Yorkshire. The Conservatives made a handful of gains here in 2019, but there is plenty of scope for growth – especially in the wake of the dramatic results at the locals, which saw the Party go from zero seats to 20 on Rotherham Council.

According to local sources, “winning all three Rotherham seats on these boundaries is a decent prospect.” Minor changes to Alexander Stafford’s seat of Rother Valley are unlikely to make much of an impact, Rotherham itself becomes “slightly more winnable”, and Wentworth and Dearne loses the Dearnes (the area with the weakest Tory vote) and is reborn as Rawmarsh and Conisbrough.

Doncaster Central (Labour majority: 2,278) becomes Doncaster Town by taking part of Don Valley that is “very good for us” – in fact local Tories suggest that “on these boundaries we should be looking to win it.” The consequence is that Don Valley itself may be harder to hold, although Nick Fletcher should probably be OK. Likewise, minor changes to Penistone and Stocksbridge are apparently unlikely to cause Miriam Cates much difficulty.

Elsewhere there is churn but less change: the rejigged boundaries in Barnsley will apparently produce broadly similar results to the status quo, as will alterations to Ed Miliband’s seat in Doncaster North (although this remains winnable). Likewise, nobody seems to expect any exciting results from a relatively conservative reshuffling of Sheffield.

On the face of it, a rosy outlook for the Party. But of course, South Yorkshire is an area where the old electoral map survived the last election. There are others, such as South Wales. But the impact of the reforms could be quite different elsewhere.