Sussex gamblers are estimated to have wagered nearly £1 billion on virtual gaming machines dubbed the ‘crack cocaine of gambling’ last year.
The controversial high-stake betting shop machines, on which punters can spend £100 every 20 seconds on games like virtual roulette, have been described as dangerously addictive and accounted for around half of all highstreet bookmakers’ profits last year.
Nearly £280 million was gambled on the machines in Brighton and Hove alone in 2013, according to figures from the Campaign for Fairer Gambling. Of that, nearly £10 million was lost by punters and across the county a further £22 million was blown.
Labour leader Ed Milliband has called for local councils to be given new powers to ban the machines, otherwise known as Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs).
And the Campaign for Fairer Gambling, spearheaded by Adrian Parkinson, a former industry employee, who helped develop the machines, is rallying Parliament to reduce the maximum stakes on FOBTs to just £2 a spin.
There are an estimated 170 FOBTs in Brighton and Hove spread across 46 licensed betting shops – including in Hove’s George Street, where there are 10 bookmaker shops.
The Association of British Bookmakers (ABB) believes changes would automatically put 7,800 betting shops and 39,000 jobs in the UK at risk – including 250 jobs in Brighton.
But Conservative councillor Graham Cox, who represents Westbourne ward, said: “Bookmakers are clustered close together, like in George Street for example, because they are only allowed four FOBT machines in each shop. The reason they open extra shops is purely to have another four FOBTs. If the number of terminals per shop was allowed to be higher then I would think only a few branches would shut.
He added: “There’s a loophole in planning laws that says bookmakers don’t need planning permission to open a new branch if the premises were previously a financial business, like a bank.
“It means bookmakers can and do convert an old building society into a betting shop. There is a case for saying local authorities need to have planning control over them.”