City wants open debate on casino

Southampton’s elected leaders say the public will help them decide if the city gets a giant Las Vegas-style casino – and if a referendum was held today the answer would be YES.

That is according to an online poll of Daily Echo readers who were asked: „Do you think that Southampton should have a super-casino?“

Voters were largely split over the controversial issue, with 51.8 per cent saying „Yes“ and 45.7 per cent saying „No“, while 2.5 per cent were „Undecided“.

The findings come after the Daily Echo yesterday revealed a huge casino could transform the derelict Royal Pier into a luxury gambling and leisure complex within three years.

It was reported the Government is just weeks away from finally giving Southampton, and 15 other cities, the green light to build new large casinos.

It is hoped a casino development – which would create up to 350 jobs and inject at least GBP 11.2minto the city economy – could be the catalyst for regenerating the waterfront.

The scheme was given a boost when port bosses Associated British Ports said they would be open to the idea of a mix of restaurants, bars and a casino on thewaterfront site.

At least ten casino operators are preparing to fight it out to win over the city council to build and run the gambling centre, which would feature 150 gaming machines and a maximum prize of GBP 4,000.

The new premises, measuring up to 1,500 square metres, would dwarf existing casinos and critics have warned that any regeneration benefits would be outweighed by potential gambling problems.

With local elections just three months away, the news was greeted with caution by all shades of the City Council political spectrum.

The ruling Conservatives and opposing parties, Labour and Lib Dems, unanimously said they would look at the potential economic benefits and negative social impacts once the Government formally offers the city a licence.

They also agreed that a public debate would be an important part of the decision-making process.

While in opposition in April last year, the Tories made a pre-election promised that they would hold a public vote on the subject and back what the people decide.

However, Royston Smith, deputy leader of the Tory-led city council, recently said a casino could be built in Southampton even if an overwhelming majority of local people did not want one.

The Cabinet member for economic development and regeneration said yesterday he was still committed to giving the public a chance to express their views in a survey, poll or forum.

„We haven’t decided on the mechanism that we will use yet for consultation, but we still want to make sure that what we do is meaningful and significant,“ he said.

„Whether it’s Royal Pier or any other places that might want to be redeveloped, a casino is always the thing that will be an enabler because it has the potential to raise large chunks of money. The question is whether or not on balance it would be the best thing for Southampton.“

Lib Dem leader Adrian Vinson said a referendum would not be the best way to decide the fate of the casino.

„I don’t think a referendum is part of local government process and I don’t believe it would be very helpful,“ he said.

„It will be for the council to decide how to best take the temperature of the public. It’s important that it’s an informed debate and that people understand all of the different issues.“

Labour Party group leader Councillor June Bridle said a casino could be a golden opportunity to redevelop Southampton’s waterfront.

„It looks as if it would be a really good asset for the city.

Hopefully creating jobs and making quite a bit of difference, but there are concerns in terms of the impact of gambling and thatwill have to be taken into account if ever we proceed with one,“ she said.