Chips down, bottom up
31 July, 2007

James Hulme, Head of Communications, NLGN

Local communities should have a decisive say in how they regenerate

The Government’s recent announcement to review the building of a supercasino in Manchester marks the end of a very British controversy. While these dens of gambling might be welcome in other parts of Europe and America, plans to establish one in Britain were decried as immoral by an unlikely alliance of the Liberal Democrats, Salvation Army and Daily Mail.

They also created a problem of conscience for progressives as the majority of sites earmarked for the super-casino sat in deprived areas and questions were raised about the trade off between creating jobs with increasing levels of gambling addiction. This was despite considerable support from (largely Labour) politicians in the areas bidding for the casino site.

What lessons can we draw from the supercasino’s (likely) demise? Well, obviously that the impact of your business on the local community is and should be a factor on whether you’re able to operate. But should we really be so picky about investments that we deem unethical but that benefit the local area? Should we not allow a car manufacturer to build a factory because of its impact on global warning? Or a shipyard that will make instruments for war?

Moreover, I have a confession to make. I really enjoy gambling, mostly on sports and politics. Like a number of political geeks I am a great fan of the website I have visited a number of casinos and never witnessed any anti-social behaviour. I would actually rather see a casino built on my high street than a vertical drinking establishment that creates problems at closing time or a fast food outlet that contributes to poor healthy eating.

Gambling does create addicts and it is depressing that bookmakers are more densely populated in poor areas than affluent ones. I also applaud when local leaders such as Jules Pipe in Hackney stand up against new gambling developments if they are clearly detrimental to the local population. However, the only problem gamblers I’ve ever known have been addicted to fruit machines or scratch cards, both of which are readily available in many local shops. Plus if you follow the logic of the anti-casino lobby, we should ban all pubs because a small percentage of users become addicted to alcohol.

So if we are not to use casinos as a bulwark for regeneration, then what can we use? The lesson from areas like Manchester and Newcastle/Gateshead is that creative industries can re-brand and re-energise cities; the same should hopefully be true of Liverpool following next year’s City of Culture. Cities like Leeds have attracted vast investment from financial services companies, transforming the city centre into one of the most vibrant in the UK. Other areas have realised the potential of educational institutions, both in terms of bringing in people from around the UK and international students.

Regeneration has also been led by effective leadership from local council leaders such as Richard Leese in Manchester. He, together with an excellent Chief Executive and Labour council has rebuilt the city to such a degree that it has been accused of having “too much regeneration”. You really can’t win with some people.

Their exploits have shown the vital impact of local leaders on regeneration. They demonstrate the pressing case for councils to be given a more significant role in economic development, including being able to retain some or even all of local business rates and be able to vary then to pay for major infrastructure projects. They should be seen as the first port of call for new developments; indeed a real sign of progress will be when a new developer, looking to invest in an area, firstly phones the council leader rather than the relevant Secretary of State.

Most of all it should be down to local communities to decide how to shape their regeneration. If the people of Manchester, or indeed Blackpool, want a supercasino, it seems unfair for them to be denied it by a decision made in Westminster. By allowing local communities a greater say in how their local area is developed, I hope we can more easily settle debates on the positive and negative impact of regeneration and focus on furthering economic development where it has the greatest need.