Recent discussion about betting shops clustering in deprived areas has gathered pace, with many big names wading in on the issue, from Harriet Harman's Southwark report, to David Lammy's lament of Tottenham's 40 bookmakers and complete absence of bookshops.
Whilst debate about this is interesting, focus on anecdotal evidence from a handful of high streets gives the wrong impression: that this issue is limited to a few specific areas. Our contribution to Channel 4 Dispatches shows that these are not isolated examples and that similar patterns can be seen in other towns across Britain.
Analysis by our collaborators, Geofutures, showed that there were clear clusters of bookmakers in certain town centres across Great Britain. Crucially, they demonstrated that town centres with the highest density of betting shops were areas where the resident population was typically poorer and constrained by their economic circumstances. This means that the patterns highlighted in London are repeated elsewhere in the country.
Why, then, does this pattern occur? Betting with a bookmaker has always been an immensely popular leisure pursuit of the working classes. Evidence from our study, the British Gambling Prevalence Survey, shows that this is still the same today. Those most likely to bet with a bookmaker come from routine and manual occupations or live in areas of greatest deprivation.
If greatest demand comes from those in more deprived areas, it's not surprising that a commercial sector chooses to service this.
The Gambling Act 2005 introduced a move towards free market principles and, for the first time, allowed the industry to stimulate demand for their products. The main question is, then, whether bookies are simply locating in areas where there is demand for their products or where they think demand can be stimulated.
Of course, other factors will also play a part - bookies will want to be in areas where there is passing footfall and where rents and overheads make operating viable. Understanding what drives bookmakers to open and cluster in certain areas is likely to be a mix of these factors.
In some ways, understanding why clustering happens is a side issue. More important is thinking about what the impact of this might be. We know that where people live matters and that local environment can affect health and wellbeing. Those with lower incomes or living in areas of greater deprivation are at greater risk of experiencing harm from gambling. If those most vulnerable to harm are more exposed to gambling, as this analysis suggests, then there are important questions to be asked about the impact of this.
Public health officials and policy makers have recognised the need to create and support healthy local environments. Similar considerations should be applied to gambling. But first we need to know more about the impact of clustering on gambling behaviour and, indeed, to consider both the positive and negative contributions that gambling venues make to an area. Doing this requires a solid empirical evidence base and Geofutures' work is a crucial step in the right direction.
Heather Wardle is Research Director at NatCen Social Research.
You can see the Geofutures map here.