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How Britain banished bookies from its high streets

Betting shop revenues at William Hill’s owner 888 Holdings fell 7pc over the first three months of 2024, which it said was because of a 2pc reduction in shop numbers, while Entain, the owner of Ladbrokes and Coral, posted a 6pc drop in betting shop sales over the same period.

“This is a business that, if you’ve managed to keep your revenues as they were the year before, that’s a success,” says Andrew Tottenham, a gambling industry consultant.

Perhaps the biggest factor though is that regulations brought in to clamp down on what was until 2019 gambling shops’ most profitable asset – fixed odds betting terminals (FOBTs) – have simply made swathes unprofitable.

Introduced in the late 1990s, FOBTs allowed customers to stake as much as £100 on the outcome of various games such as roulette. They were limited to four per shop, but by opening a cluster of shops in one area, companies could get around this.

“It was a ridiculous thing,” says Tottenham. “If you were allowed four machines, suddenly everybody was complaining because there were a lot of bookmakers on the high street. If you said, ‘well, you can have 25 machines’, you would see less bookmakers.”

However, as the prevalence of the machines grew, the sheer speed at which customers could lose money and questions around their addictive nature made them the target of calls for a clampdown.

Speaking ahead of the ban in 2018, Matt Hancock, the then culture secretary, said: “These machines are a social blight and prey on some of the most vulnerable in society, and we are determined to put a stop to it and build a fairer society for all.”

New rules were brought in capping FOBT stakes at £2, amid warnings of mass closures from bookmakers.

As well as the clampdown on FOBTs, bookies have faced the same soaring costs for utilities and rising wage bills as other retail and hospitality businesses since the pandemic.

At the same time, betting shops face the challenge of how to appeal to younger customers who are used to doing everything on their phones. 

“There’s a general trend which is that the high street customer is getting older,” says Tottenham. “As people die, they’re not being replenished, the younger ones are not coming into the market. [Betting shops] have evolved to look after a certain age group… it’s not very exciting for younger people.”

There has also been a significant shift towards online gambling over the last decade, which was exacerbated by the pandemic, making opening physical stores a less appealing prospect for operators.

“Players who wanted to place their bet on what sports were on and wanted to play some casino games did migrate online during that period,” says Vaughan Lewis, chief strategy officer at 888.

However, he insists many customers have now returned to in-person betting and that there is still a place on the high street for bookies. “There’s a really large, consistent loyal base of players who enjoy going to betting shops, whether it’s for the social aspect, whether [they] prefer to use cash, whether it’s just for killing time and something to do.

“In terms of how popular they are, how much they are used, and the overall spend per shop, it’s very similar to where it was, pre-Covid and pre-FOBT changes.”