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Thursday, 2 April 2015

One day a prince will come….

An Innocent Man: Gordon Brown and the ‘killing’ of the super casino

By Dan Waugh, Partner, Regulus Partners

The great British super-casino whodunit is replete with enough twists, turns and intrigue to stand comparison with Agatha Christie’s best yarns. Not simply a tale of mistaken identity, it may also prove to be a case of a death faked; the perversion of the course of justice rather than homicide.

The ‘crime’ in this instance was the killing of the British super-casino (or ‘regional casino’ as it is known to legislation). The culprit, according to popular lore is that great pantomime villain, Gordon Brown, the conviction politician who brought his Presbyterian sense of morality to the question of how and where people in Britain should be permitted to gamble.  

At first glance, the facts fit. Under Blair our Britannia was cool – perhaps not Vegas cool but closer in spirit to the Rat Pack than to the Gang of Four. Blair gave Sir Alan Budd the freedom to review Britain’s gambling laws through the eyes of an economist rather than a moralist – and he decided as many other governments have done (including those to the left and to the right in Beijing and Singapore) that destination casinos or integrated resorts were good. Brown’s premiership was a correction to all that. It was back to basics (again) - a time for Labour to sober up after the party turned sour in Iraq and Afghanistan.

At the start of 2007 with Blair as PM, the Gambling Act (despite a tumultuous passage) had been in place for a year-and-a-half and we were on course for our first super-casino. By the end of the year, with Brown in Number 10, hopes for ‘Brit Vegas’ had been consigned to the dustbin. The ‘Son of the Manse’, cheered on by gambling’s bogeyman (and editor of the Daily Mail) Paul Dacre had prevailed by stopping Blair’s folly in its tracks.

Only it wasn’t quite like that…

According to voting records, Gordon Brown’s sole parliamentary involvement with the regional casino was an affirmative vote in March 2007, when the House of Commons endorsed the Casino Advisory Panel’s decision to award the licence to Manchester (along with the allocation to other local authorities of the eight ‘large’ and eight ‘small’ casino licences). I don’t know (and don’t particularly care) whether Brown’s conscience was troubled in voting for the measure. His vote was consistent with his priorities at the time (as boss of the Treasury) to attract investment to the UK.

The truth is that plans for integrated resorts and destination gaming were killed in the Lords and not in the Commons. In a monumental act of folly, Blackpool’s unsuccessful bid team persuaded a sufficient number of misty-eyed peers to form a united front with the anti-gambling lobby in order to defeat the statutory instrument.

Brown’s role in all of this was to persuade his culture secretary, Tessa Jowell to decouple the regional casino from the other 16 licences. His government probably could have pushed it through but Brown’s own interests had shifted with the move to Number 10. Rather than killing the super-casino, Brown’s role was to turn off the life-support machine.

Only it’s not quite like that either…

The intriguing fact behind all of this is that the regional casino isn’t dead after all. Look – it’s sitting right there in primary legislation – on the face of the Gambling Act. All that is required is the political will to resubmit the enabling legislation; and this is something that may not be as difficult as is commonly supposed.

If the decision to award the regional casino to Manchester was returned to Parliament, it is difficult to believe that Blackpool City Council would be sufficiently exercised to protest this time; while the backdrop of the FOBT controversy might even help to emphasise the virtues of destination gambling over the convenience market. Whoever wins the General Election in May will need to address the Budget deficit - and this will require investment ideas as well as simple tax-raising. Meanwhile, the opening of Genting’s Resorts World at the NEC will have helped to reframe thinking about how gambling can be harnessed to more productive economic ends.

What is really needed is not so much political will but industry ambition – for someone to paint a picture of what the regional casino (probably but not necessarily in Manchester) might look like – what amenities it would incorporate, how many jobs it would create, how much investment it would attract, how much it would generate in taxes, how it would support tourism and (importantly) explain convincingly how inevitable concerns about social responsibility can and will be effectively addressed.

This sense of ambition has not hitherto come from within the domestic industry, while many of the global titans of casino (such as MGM, Wynn, Las Vegas Sands and Crown) have bad memories of Britain as a place to do business. They may also be too besotted with the prospect of integrated resorts in Japan to bother about a return to our small island. And yet…..

And yet, Europe remains a major gambling market that the big operators have yet to crack. Investments in Britain by Genting, Crown and Caesars were effectively market entry plays and remain fairly marginal in terms of their global businesses. Meanwhile, Sands may now ‘own’ the customer in most of the major gambling markets in the world – Las Vegas, Macau, Singapore – but not in Europe.

There was a time when some very bright minds (in government, in academe, in industry) considered that destination casinos would work in Britain and work for Britain. It may not be in vogue to say so today but that is no reason to disregard their considered work on the subject.

The super casino is not dead; it is simply sleeping. It pricked its finger on a spinning wheel and now waits for Prince Charming (Prince Steve, Prince Sheldon, Prince Jim, perhaps even a homespun Prince….) to bring it back to life.

Meanwhile, as he prepares to retire from life in the Commons, we should pause to exonerate Gordon Brown for the crime of killing our super casino and perhaps remember him instead as the man whose betting tax changes (GPT) responded to sound economic arguments and paved the way for a rebirth of that sector….

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