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FEATURES - PLACE YOUR BETS PLEASE

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Councils are hoping to hit the jackpot with bids for casinos. Mark Smulian assesses three hopefuls...
Councils are hoping to hit the jackpot with bids for casinos. Mark Smulian assesses three hopefuls

The wheel of fortune is spinning somewhere in Whitehall, and when it stops a few lucky councils will become the proud possessors of the first wave of large casinos allowed by the government.

Gambling is controversial - frowned on by some - and concerns raised while the legislation was passing through parliament last year mean there will be far fewer casinos than under the free-for-all proposed originally.

The government is due to announce the shortlist this week for regional casino, plus eight large and eight small ones. 'Regional', 'large' and 'small' are defined by floor areas and the levels of prizes permitted.

Bids were made for 27 regional casinos and for 41 either large or small ones, with many bidders indicating that they would be prepared to settle for a smaller casino if required to.

Local government's rush to the roulette tables and slot machines has been caused not by enthusiasm for gambling, but by the hope that they will bring jobs and regeneration in their wake.

To win the race they must convince the Casino Advisory Panel that their bids are commercially viable, will assist regeneration, create jobs and not cause harmful social effects such as encouraging gambling addiction among people on low incomes.

The panel is due to sift the shortlist and recommend the winners to culture secretary Tessa Jowell by the end of the year.

Dumfries & Galloway Council

Stranraer looks a long way from any centre of population on a map, but it is a mere 90 minutes from Belfast by ferry, which is why the council has bid for a smaller casino in this remote spot. No casinos are planned for Northern Ireland, so it would be the nearest one available.

The ferry service to Belfast is due to relocate four miles along the coast, removing 1.5m visitors a year from Stranraer, in a blow to the town's economy, says Alex Haswell, clerk to licensing board.

'We want to develop a marina and there is a lot of land available,' he says. 'It has considerable potential as a tourist attraction and we are looking to build a hotel and casino with it.'

Mr Haswell, who himself often nips over to Belfast to shop, says the eccentrically-shaped catchment area from Carlisle to Ayr and across the Irish Sea would be sufficient to make the casino viable.

Dumfries & Galloway suffers from a low wage economy, with incomes 12% behind the Scottish average, and 19% lower in the Stranraer area.

The economy depends heavily on agriculture, has very few large companies and tourism is underdeveloped. Without a more diverse economy the area will continue to lose its younger population, the council fears. Its submission states: 'A casino will speed up the transformation from a commercial ferry port to an international marine and leisure tourism destination.'

Dartford BC

Not even its warmest admirers would describe Dartford as a tourist destination - it is a light industrial and commuter town just outside London, best known as the birthplace of Sir Mick Jagger.

But the town will be put on the international map when the Channel Tunnel high-speed link station opens at Ebbsfleet next year.

Hotel developments are planned to take advantage of the fast services to central London, France and Belgium. Ebbsfleet is expected to serve as place where people who want to save money on hotel bills sleep when visiting London for work, tourism or for the 2012 Olympic Games.

The casino - Dartford has bid for both the 'regional' and 'large' varieties - would provide an additional incentive for people to stay at Ebbsfleet and would also sit naturally with the massive regeneration planned for the surrounding Thames Gateway.

A council spokesman says: 'The proposed casino would be at the heart of the commercial district at Ebbsfleet where 50,000 jobs are due to be created.

'Our idea is to improve the local leisure offer with a conference centre and hotels ideally placed for people who want to visit London without staying there. The casino would offer them something extra.'

The site is close to one of the country's largest new housing developments at Eastern Quarry, adjacent to the Bluewater retail centre.

'We know we are not an area that people come to as tourists,' the spokesman adds. 'But we hope we can exploit our proxim-ity to London, the Thames Gateway and the Kent countryside.'

Blackpool BC

For a town in the Last Chance Saloon, the regional casino proposal is crucial to its prospects of recovery.

Corporate policy manager Alan Cavill says bluntly: 'In a declining town there will come a point where it is not viable as a resort, and we want to turn it around before that stage is reached.'

Once a thriving resort, Blackpool's economic statistics are now alarming: it has the fourth-lowest average wage in the country and a top 10 placing for incapacity benefit claimants.

The town's holiday accommodation has halved to 1,800 properties over 25 years, with most becoming low-quality flats and bedsits.

The casino plan is part of an attempt to reinvent Blackpool as a higher quality resort, without scaring away its traditional customers looking for cheap 'n' cheerful entertainment.

Mr Cavill says: 'The casino is part of a larger regeneration masterplan designed to produce change over 10-12 years, which it will catalyse.

'Our aim is to create 20,000 net new jobs in the sub-region, about half in Blackpool itself.'

Many of the jobs that do exist in Blackpool are seasonal, or low-paid, or both, none of which encourages claimants into work.

The casino would anchor a complex of developments including a new conference and exhibition centre to supersede the 114-year-old Winter Gardens, which cannot offer the facilities that conference organisers now demand.

'We are losing conferences hand over fist to competitors,' Mr Cavill admits.

Some£2bn of investment would be attracted by the casino and conference 'quarter', the council believes, and it has won the backing of the North West Regional Development Agency.

Are the stakes too high a price to pay, asks Jennifer Sprinks

The Labour government has grappled with furious accusations over the leniency of the Gambling Act 2005. Critics argue it will pander to a sweeping problem of gambling addictions in the UK, which could severely blight children's lives. The Department for Culture, Media & Sport, on the other hand, would argue that the new laws set limits to restrict the gaming industry.

Of all the new centres, only the regional, or 'super-casino', will be allowed to have unlimited jackpot gaming machines and prizes. Naturally this is why 27 councils are battling it out for the sole regional casino licence. So what is the Casino Advisory Panel looking for in a bid that could make casino operators and councils hit the jackpot?

The panel is seeking substantial evidence into why the area is being proposed, rather than becoming lumbered with a wad of marketing material to plug the site. One of its priorities will be to ensure that bids tackle concerns about any detrimental social effect casinos will have on locations, such as seaside resorts, edge of town developments or inner-city centres.

Bids should highlight the areas in need of regeneration and include data on unemployment and social deprivation to show how a casino could turn some of these ingrained problems around.

But the panel's aim is also to avoid going against the will of the local residents so it has to ensure that those areas selected are willing to license a new casino.

Bidders were asked to submit information on topics including what would make their application stand out from the crowd. More specific information on levels of tourism, population statistics of the local area, current level of investor interest and details of local consultation will also help way up the pros and cons.

Blackpool is clearly hopeful to become the next Las Vegas and is deemed the front-runner. It has the seaside location to act as one attraction for tourists and it has made a regeneration point that it needs the casino to help balance permanent year-round employment with seasonal jobs.

But Manchester, too, looks fit to have a regional casino, having had extensive help from an urban regeneration company, New East Manchester, in its bid at the Sportcity site. The bid placed major emphasis on the knock-on effects for employment, estimating it would bring 3,000 jobs to the city.

The panel's assignment is not an easy one. It has to find an even balance for casinos in a range of locations while also assessing the impact such a development would have on local people and opportunities.

On the plus side, it will boost tourism, improve transport links, make the area more attractive to investors and generate income for other regeneration projects. Many of the bids demonstrate how a casino would be complemented by a hotel or other leisure and sports facilities to give a focal point to a town.

However, super-casinos in other countries have previously led to a range of social problems, including an increase in crime, debt, loss of employment, depression and consequential family breakdowns. A gambling culture could be too high a price to pay for economic regeneration.

Councils will undoubtedly have to contend with opposition from local residents and pressure groups who fear a super-casino will create social problems with compulsive gambling and debt.

Still, the government is forging ahead with its plans so the proof of the pudding will be in the safeguards offered by the Gambling Act 2005. Only time will tell.

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