With millions already being pumped into the city in the form of PFI and PPP projects, Manchester was seen as the rank outsider in the contest for the UK’s first super-casino licence. So what was it that convinced the Casino Advisory Panel (CAP) of Manchester’s singular need for continued investment and regeneration? And if, as has been suggested, the intention was always to grant the regional licence to a northern city in order to fulfil the requirement for the casinos to cover “a good geographical spread of areas across Britain”, then why not Blackpool?
A booming city
Widely recognised as the fastest-growing city centre in the North West, Manchester is home to some 20,000 residents and employs around 1.2 million people. Over the past 10 years, Manchester City Council has worked hard to alter the previously bleak image of the city.
And with the recent delivery of successful, world-class events such as the 2002 Commonwealth Games, new and innovative projects such as Peel Holdings’ Media City:UK coming to fruition, and a growing reputation for its city centre retail, tourism and leisure assets, Manchester is emerging as one of the UK’s, and even one of the world’s, leading cities.
But while such progress highlights the strong prospects of commercial success for a regional casino, these forward steps also mask the distinctly different fortunes of those towns surrounding the booming city centre. In fact, East Manchester, which encompasses the proposed casino site of Sportcity in Beswick, is one of the poorest, most run-down areas in the country, designated as a national priority for regeneration. In the Deputy Prime Minister’s Indices of Multiple Deprivation 2004, Manchester itself is ranked as the third most deprived local authority area in England.
Urban regeneration companies such as New East Manchester (NEM) look set to transform such areas. Since its creation in 2000, NEM has worked in partnership with Manchester City Council, English Partnerships, the North West Regional Development Agency, the communities of East Manchester and numerous private housing developers to deliver 7,000 new homes, complete the first phase of Central Park, which is set to become the UK’s largest urban business district, and create or safeguard more than 3,000 local jobs.
But while issues of regeneration were central to the CAP’s decision, it was Manchester’s detailed consultation with police; health and education bodies; voluntary organisations, including faith communities; individual experts; and casino operators, existing and potential, that led the CAP, chaired by Professor Stephen Crow, to select the city as that most suitable to test the social impact of such a venture.
In terms of measuring the commercial viability of the regional casino, as well as benefits to tourism, employment and the local supply chain, Manchester City Council’s policy of designing sustainable communities through the implementation of area-based strategies to extend the benefits of economic renaissance throughout the city, led to its proposal being deemed as having ‘a unique formula to offer’.
As a pilot the regional casino will be subjected to close monitoring. Here, the council and NEM have developed a ‘robust framework’ to assess not only how the casino will contribute to their economic and regeneration objectives, but also to measure its positive and negative social consequences.
It is here that Blackpool’s bid fell down. The conclusions of the CAP stated that it would not represent the best test of social impact, because “most of the social effects would be exported”. While it was evident that Blackpool’s need for regeneration was large, it was viewed that the regeneration benefits put forward in the proposal were unproven and unsubstantiated.
Not only that, but Blackpool’s proposal was much more limited geographically, with the majority of customers having to come from outside Blackpool. Compared with its biggest North West rival, Blackpool has just 2.3 million adults within an hour’s travel, whereas Manchester’s ‘one-hour’ catchment area boasts more than 10 million adults.
Blackpool’s status as a tourist destination counted against its bid, with its days as a holiday destination for crowds of workers and their families regarded as very nearly over.
Although a winning bid for the regional casino would have helped put Blackpool on the tourist destination map, the overarching question was whether economic decline was such that only the development of a regional casino could resolve it. The thoughts of the CAP were clear: the regeneration of Blackpool and the need for the town to adapt to present day and future conditions was a situation that should be resolutely faced by the authorities and local businesses alike, without visions of external intervention to rectify the problem.
Opportunity to appeal
With Manchester being announced as having the winning bid, the CAP’s recommendation will now be put before Parliament for approval, and while there is no existing provision for appeal against the decision, there is talk of a number of displeased local authorities seeking to challenge the decision through judicial review. And Blackpool is one of them, with 36 MPs so far expressing ‘surprise and regret’ that the CAP failed to recommend a licence for Blackpool in an early day motion, introduced by a local MP.
Blackpool’s council is understood to still be considering whether or not to launch a legal challenge against the CAP recommendation. But it is believed that AEG Europe, which owns the Millennium Dome, has decided against a challenge.
When an operating licence is sought from the Gambling Commission, potential operators will be required to state in the application how they will go about addressing areas of social responsibility, including the issue of problem gambling. This is just one of many areas to be addressed, which also include ensuring the highest levels of probity and financial robustness.
The grant of the premises licence, which will be the hotly contested battle in Manchester, is in the city council’s hands. According to council leader Richard Leese, bidders for the regional casino licence do not have to locate it in East Manchester. He says it is going to be an “open tender process and operators can come forward with other sites”. All will be judged on merit.
The two-stage competition outlined in the Gambling Act 2005 means that each submission will initially be considered on its own merits, although every other candidate will be able to make representations in relation to their competitors’ bids. Significantly, any decision made to disregard an application at this stage can be appealed, which could see the process drag out for many months.
The second stage will involve the city council determining which of the surviving bids will offer the ‘greatest benefit to the authority’s area’.
The noise surrounding the regional casino bid has been loud and, with operating, personal and premises licences yet to be agreed, it is unlikely that it will reduce in the short term. The announcement that Manchester is set to be the site of the UK’s first super-casino came as a surprise to many – bookmakers were offering odds of 16-1 against the city winning the right to grant the licence. But taking a gamble is what it is all about.
•Hamish Lawson is head of licensing, gambling and regulatory law at Cobbetts