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Scottish independent bookmakers are struggling to make ends meet in the light of pressures from online gambling competition, increasing government regulation and the recent impact of lockdown and subsequent restrictions. John Heaton, Chairman of the largest independent operator, Scotbet, is vocal in his criticism of the Scottish government’s lack of support for the betting industry and has expressed concerns about the paucity of financial provision to allow the industry to weather the unprecedented storm that is Covid-19.
Scotbet went into administration only last year and 27 employees lost their jobs as 11 branches closed. The remaining 30 shops continue to operate and the business employs some 127 people. Additional costs of £500k since March, combined with a 20% drop in takings, have come as a major blow to a business that was seeking to re-establish itself and move forward.
Heaton highlights the Scottish government’s woeful financial provisions for the gambling industry, and compares this lack of support to more generous provisions for other associated industries. For example, from the initial lockdown in the spring, 100% business rates relief has been available for the retail, hospitality and leisure sectors and it is applied automatically by all Scottish councils. Independent bookmakers only quality for a generic 1.5% rates relief available for all non-domestic properties, a level of support that Heaton calls “paltry”. Additionally, the gambling industry as a whole is ineligible for retail, hospitality and leisure support grants, nor does the industry qualify for Coronavirus Business Interruption Loans. The latter can provide SMEs with up to £5million loan capital to allow them to continue in business despite loss of revenue and cash flow issues.
Heaton does acknowledge that there has been some valuable support, however, saying ”We are grateful for the financial support we have received, not least the UK Government’s furlough scheme. Without it, we would have been wiped out by the pandemic. It allowed us to retain our talented, experienced team and get us through the worst of lockdown”.
However, he remains deeply critical of the Scottish government’s lack of financial provision for the industry and, indeed its perceived lack of interest. Speaking on behalf of all Scottish independent bookmakers, he says “We all feel let down by the Scottish Government. Having contacted them several times to raise our plight, we have not even had the courtesy of an acknowledgement. The First Minister is on record as having said that she wants all Scottish businesses trading viably again, but actions speak louder than words. Where is the practical support for businesses like ours? I understand that resources are tight, but betting shops in England were deemed worthy of government support, so why not those in Scotland?
As the sporting calendar continues to suffer disruptions and restrictions within the betting shops themselves deter custom, with on-line bookies taking up the slack, the future of independent bookmakers is looking increasingly bleak. John Heaton is highlighting the issue in the hope that the Scottish Government will acknowledge the extent of the problem and provide vital financial assistance to ensure the sector’s survival.