Secret plan to open a thousand casinos

Plans to allow more than 1,000 new casinos to open within a decade have been uncovered by The Times.

Months after Parliament agreed a limit of one super-casino and 16 smaller ones, a government report reveals that hundreds could be built every year.

The report, written by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, also reveals that there are nearly twice as many gambling addicts as the Government first claimed.

It will add to the pressure on Tessa Jowell, the beleaguered Culture Secretary, whose Department for Culture, Media and Sport has been in the vanguard of casino expansion.

She faced a barrage of criticism when initial plans allowed for a massive increase in the number of casinos, forcing her to cut back the scale of building allowed in the first three-year trial. But that first limit of 17 will be dwarfed by the further expansion being planned for by John Prescott’s department.

That figure — which the report said was „an initial position only and will be revised after three years“ — could see another 40 super-casinos being built as well as hundreds of smaller ones — possibly several on every high street.

But the gambling revolution could be „dramatic and negative“ for those areas and the Government will be unable to intervene if things go wrong, says the report.

„It was thought that some of these initial effects might not be capable of easy reversal,“ it says.

The report, titled The Use Classes Order, Casinos and the Gambling Bill, gives warning that the new casinos — described in the report as „a licence to print money“ — will result in the breakdown of town centres already under pressure from the binge-drinking epidemic. It will cause „enhanced socio-economic problems in terms of crime, antisocial behaviour and, potentially, alcohol.“

It questions whether the super-casinos will deliver the promised regeneration benefits. It suggests a new breed of operators will emerge, running „cheap and highly profitable business models with no regard for individual and wider impacts on communities at large“.

The report said that 24-hour casinos would lead to an increase in noise, litter and antisocial problems where casinos were linked with other „magnet“ activities such as cinemas, restaurants and football matches.

Blackpool, often touted as the front-runner for Britain’s first super-casino, is one of the least suitable locations because it has “no space for a regional casino”, the report says. The other front-runners, according to the document, are London, Coventry, Manchester, Birmingham and Sheffield. An independent panel will decide.

The report also claims that there are twice the number of gambling addicts than the Government has admitted. It says addicts are “currently estimated to be 1 per cent of the population” — about 700,000. Ms Jowell previously told the BBC that 0.6 per cent of the population were addicts.

It documents how casino operators are intending to „lie in wait“ during the three years that the Government imposes a cap. „If (a casino operator) is not successful in being awarded one of the regional casinos, it will support construction of a large casino of 4,999 square metres (the maximum threshold for the large casino) with a view to becoming a regional casino eventually, once the pilot study stage has passed.“

In an astonishing attack on a fellow department, the report by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is critical of the decision by Ms Jowell’s department to introduce a cap. „Our consultation with central government officials indicated that the origin of this precise figure was unknown. An alternative and perhaps preferable approach would have been to identify a range of possible regional casinos.“

The Gambling Act, passed before the election, limited the number of super-casinos to one for the trial period. Labour and the Tories are thought to want to raise this to eight, but neither is willing to take the political risk of pushing it through.

Don Foster, the Liberal Democrat culture spokesman, said: „This report paints a frightening picture. It is particularly worrying because, unless they amend the planning laws and create a single use class for casinos, all sorts of buildings will be converted without the community receiving any regenerative benefits at all.“

A spokesman for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport said: „We have imposed a cap of one regional casino and eight large and small casinos as a cautious approach in order to test the impact on problem gambling and regeneration. We will make that assessment carefully.“

He added: „This is a report to Government, not by Government. Many of its conclusions are no longer relevant as they relate to the old policy, not the current one.“

However, the report, which has the logo of Mr Prescott’s department and was published a few weeks ago, will only have been released once the department was happy with it.