Minister tells gaming firm he wants more super casinos

Richard Caborn, the minister responsible for gambling deregulation, has privately said he wants eight resort-style regional casinos across Britain, according to one of the industry’s leading operators, Rank Group. Its outgoing chief executive, Mike Smith, said: „Caborn wants eight [regional casinos] but will settle for four.“ He said the minister had set out his ambitions for the industry at a private meeting with the company.

The government’s Gambling Act, passed last year, laid the ground for a new generation of super-casinos, with many times more slot machines than the 20 permitted in existing casinos. But the culture secretary, Tessa Jowell, infuriated the industry by reducing a cap on the proposed number of resort casinos – with 1,250 Las Vegas-style slot machines – from eight to just one. Earlier the government had estimated the British market might ultimately support 20 to 30 resort casinos.

„I don’t think she voluntarily did that [reduced the cap to one],“ Mr Smith said. „It was just the media campaign, particularly the Daily Mail.“ The bill also faced late opposition from Conservative MPs.

Asked if Mr Caborn was seeking to increase the allowed number of regional casinos, a spokesman for the minister last night said: „We are proceeding on the basis that there will be just one. We have said we will listen if there is a consensus – both inside and outside parliament – that the number should change, but we are not going to initiate any change.“

This week Labour backbenchers called a debate seeking an increase in regional casinos. They are keen to see licences, which are expected to be tied to investment in local regeneration, granted in their constituencies. However, a number of Tory MPs again made it clear that there would be no cross-party consensus.

Part of the Gambling Act came into force in October, relaxing rules on casino membership as well as raising slot machine numbers and payouts. Rank said yesterday this had resulted in a 13% rise in attendance at its 36 casinos for the final three months of 2005, though new punters were light spenders and typically focused on machines. The group has 10 more regular casinos in the pipeline, and said it was assisting a number of local authorities with proposals to bid for next-generation casino licences, including the single proposed regional casino.

Rank, which also operates Mecca bingo and Hard Rock Cafe, reported a 14% drop in underlying pre-tax profit for 2005 to GBP 85.4m on sales up 2.9% at GBP 810m. The company sold its Deluxe Film business in January for GBP 420m and is confident of selling its loss-making DVD distributor Deluxe Media. It said it was not considering closing the unit.