Developers need clarity from shake-up of UK gaming laws

15 March 2005 by
Developers need clarity from shake-up of UK gaming laws

Operators and developers are still in the dark over the future shape of the UK's gaming industry, following the Government's fudged attempts to overhaul our antiquated gambling laws.

Further details are unlikely to emerge until at least April, ahead of an anticipated May General Election, but one thing is for sure - the final outcome will be a far cry from the original blueprint.

What we do know is that the Government now plans to limit the number of new casinos initially to eight examples of each type - regional, large and small casinos. And no further casinos will be permitted for at least another three years.

Operators will be able to put forward their initial planning applications only when an independent advisory panel has recommended eight areas for each type of casino to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. And the panel won't start its work until the start of 2006 at the earliest.

Although a lot of the current large-scale casino proposals are known as "unicorn" developments - because they are never likely to be realised - the competition for regional sites will be fierce, particularly as London is expected to get up to four.

"There'll be some pretty nervous developers out there," says Christie & Co director Jon Patrick.

As Patrick points out, the issue doesn't just affect casino operators and developers. Most, or all, of the current proposals for regional casinos form part of larger mixed-use schemes, sitting alongside other components such as hotels, retail and restaurants.

In most cases, if the casino proposal fails the project will fall, taking with it job opportunities and valuable inward investment.

Mike Saul, relationship director at Barclays Bank's gaming team, says there's "a massive opportunity" for hospitality and leisure businesses in the wake of deregulation, but he notes growing discontent among developers and investors.

"A lot of the operators feel very bitter about this and more and more people feel it has been fudged as a General Election is approaching," Saul says. "We share those frustrations. The Government keeps moving the goalposts."

Some investors and developers have already lost confidence. Earlier this month UK Bingo giant Gala ended its $1b (£532m) joint venture with US firm Harrah's Entertainment after the Government announced its plans to restrict the number of regional casinos to eight. The partners had been looking to develop this many sites themselves.

Another key barrier is taxation. Under the present proposals, operators of regional casinos would be charged at the top rate of 40% on table revenues - a level of duty most, especially the overseas operators, view as prohibitive. As Saul points out, there is no shortage of other investment opportunities out there.

Another issue is planning. The Government has announced plans to introduce a new usage class for casinos, termed D2. Again, further information is thin on the ground, but it could make mix-use planning consent more complicated.

Patrick points to a number of other issues that have yet to be resolved, including the likely levels of rental costs, rateable values and service charges. "Before they open their doors they will already have considerable costs," he says.

But will there be a market for even the limited number of new casinos proposed? Not all are convinced.

"I don't think we really know the profile of the customer who will use these casinos," says Patrick, who cast doubt on the industry's ability to sustain a week-long business. "It's a Thursday, Friday, Saturday night business really."

And while the weather, infrastructure and glitzy shows at Las Vegas make it a holiday destination, some pundits questioned whether UK development locations such as Sunderland would ever be able to do the same.

A lot hangs on the effective reform of the gaming laws, but the issue remains contentious and its future about as clear as mud.

Timeline - December 1999 Home Office sets up nine-member Gambling Review body

  • July 2001 Gambling Review body publishes its findings in the 260-page Budd Report
  • March 2002 Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell unveils Government's response to Budd Report, A Safe Bet for Success - Modernising Britain's Gambling Laws
  • July 2003 Government unveils first part of its draft Gambling Bill
  • February 2004 End of consultation process with public, special interest and industry groups
  • April 2004 Joint Committee on the Draft Gambling Bill publishes its findings
  • July 2004 Joint Committee publishes report on proposals for regional casinos
  • September 2004 Government response to the Joint Committee's report on regional casinos
  • October 2004 First reading of Gambling Bill in Parliament
  • November 2004 Bill goes to committee stage after being passed with a majority of 74 (286 to 212 in favour) on second reading
  • December 2004 Government outlines its "cautious" approach to new casino regime, limiting the number of regional, large and small casinos to eight each
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