Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Memoranda


Memorandum submitted by Blackpool First Alliance

  According to the local press, a delegation from Blackpool Borough Council will be giving oral evidence to your Committee on 11 June 2002. On the past record of those included in the delegation they will not make it known to your Committee that there is considerable opposition in Blackpool to the proposals for so-called "resort casinos". Indeed in a survey conducted by the local newspaper in April 2002 opinion was equally divided between those against the proposals and those in favour.

  The vote of a majority of Blackpool councillors in favour of progressing the proposals does not, therefore, represent a true reflection of the wishes of the residents and businesses. Widespread calls for a referendum on the issue have been unsuccessful in the face of unexplained resistance from what is known locally as the "cosy club". This despite the proposals being described by the Chair of the committee charged with preparing a report on resort casinos for the Council as "the most important issue for the town for over 100 years". Too important to let ALL the residents and businesses have their say in a referendum no doubt. But that would be democracy at work and it is notable by its absence in the town these days.

  These proposals have been hyped up over the last two years, with the use of large tranches of SRB2 funds and other public money, by the Blackpool Challenge Partnership Ltd, an allegedly independent body concerned with the regeneration of Blackpool. The Chairman of the Challenge Partnership is the Leader of the Council, the Chief Executive of the Borough Council is on the board of directors (the present Chief Executive was only very recently appointed to the post we hasten to add) and the Manager of the company is Mr Alan Cavill, who is the Head of the Economic Development Unit of the Council.

  Mr Marc Etches, Managing Director of Leisure Parcs Ltd, is on the board of directors of the Blackpool Challenge Partnership. His company is the one proposing resort casinos for Blackpool. Also on the board of directors is Mr David Cam, the Company Secretary of Blackpool Pleasure Beach Company. His company has said publicly that, if resort casinos are approved for Blackpool, they will apply for a gaming licence on the Pleasure Beach. The remaining directors of the Blackpool Challenge Partnership are all appointees of the Council.

  Certain of these appointees to the board of the Challenge Partnership, ostensibly representative of local organisations, have expressed support for the proposals publicly. They have done so without taking a vote of their members and without proper authority for so doing. The opinions they express are, therefore, their personal views only and should not be considered to be the views of their members.

  Mr Peter Moore, who has been appointed as a consultant to advise on a "Master plan" for Blackpool, was the Managing Director of Centre Parcs plc at a time when Mr Marc Etches was the Manager of the Nottingham complex. Mr Trevor Hemmings, whose family trust owns Leisure Parcs Ltd, was connected to Centre Parcs by a major shareholding, and possibly a directorship, in S&N Breweries, which owned the complex. Mr Moore's fees are paid by the Blackpool Challenge Partnership.

  It is not surprising, you might think, that the "independence" and objectivity of the Blackpool Challenge Partnership Ltd and of Mr Moore is seriously called into question.

  The word "hype" is chosen deliberately. Blackpool Challenge Partnership, Blackpool Borough Council and Leisure Parcs admit that all that exists at the moment is an artist's impression of "Pharaoh's Palace" ( a supposed representation of a "resort casino"), a "cardboard" model ( a description applied by Mr Cavill, on the record, to the model) and a "red line" outline planning application, submitted by Leisure Parcs in October 2001, only a few short weeks after another consortium took an interest in the council owned site proposed for "Pharaoh's Palace".That application is qualified by a note which makes clear that the artist's impression, the model and, indeed, the suggested component parts of the proposed complex (referred to in a press release that accompanied the application) do not form part of the application.

  It depends whether you believe Leisure Parcs' submission to the Budd Committee which refers to "up to five or six resort casinos" or you talk to the "master plan guru" Mr Moore, who envisages "possibly three or four resort casinos", on how you assess how much land would be required along the prime section of Blackpool Promenade to accommodate these proposals. No one in the "cosy club" has done the exercise or, if they have, they have not made the findings public. The site earmarked for "Pharaoh's Palace" is approximately 14 acres along and to the rear of the Golden Mile. So anything from 42 acres (three resort casinos) to 84 acres (six resort casinos) may be taken up by these proposals. Who knows or is saying?

  The Alliance has done its own rough survey and multiplying the 14 acre site by six or even by only three would devastate hundreds of hotels, boarding houses and small businesses. The cost of compulsorily purchasing these properties and businesses would make the proposal totally unviable yet no one has even ventured a ballpark figure to date. Questions on the total area of land involved and/or the cost of acquisition are met with the statement that Leisure Parcs are proposing only one resort casino.

  Yet the whole premise of resort casinos as a suggested engine for regeneration of Blackpool is based on the "vision" of five or six such complexes. The words "pie in the sky" spring to mind.

  The artist's impression and the model have received extensive media coverage which says more for the efforts of public relations consultants and lobbyists than their contribution to the debate. What do not exist, even at this late stage, are any viability studies, financial appraisals, detailed plans and drawings, environmental impact studies, traffic impact studies, parking requirement appraisals, socio-economic impact studies or a town-wide referendum on whether or not Blackpool residents and businesses want resort casinos.

  One of the matters with which we are concerned is the probable impact on Blackpool of the recommendations of the Budd Committee on gambling. Whilst our members are not against gambling in principle, or against casinos in particular, the Alliance is, with other organisations locally, opposed to proposals to build up to six massive "resort casinos" in Blackpool.

  The experience in other countries where mega casinos exist is that they devastate the small businesses in surrounding areas. The ex Mayor of Atlantic City and his wife came to Blackpool as an apparently unbiased messenger. It is not public knowledge that his trip was paid for by Leisure Parcs. Only on an enquiry as to his present occupation did he reveal that he was part of a consortium building the thirteenth resort casino in the city.

  More significantly, although he had been Mayor for ten years, he was uncertain as to how many of the 1,000 family-owned hotels and boarding houses were left after the appearance of the present twelve resort casinos. Asked whether it was 750, or 250 or 100 he conceded it could be " less than 100". There are 59 hotels other than resort casino hotels, 23 of the 59 are national franchises such as Holiday Inn and Days Inn. That leaves only 36 family-owned hotels and boarding houses out of over 1,000 which existed previously. Blackpool has over 3,500 boarding establishments.

  Atlantic City has been held out by "the cosy club" as a model for Blackpool to follow. You will not be surprised to learn that the majority of our hoteliers are less than enthusiastic.

  Resort casinos also lead to a significant increase in gambling and drug addiction, crime, prostitution, social deprivation and the break up of families. The problems are mainly caused by the concentration of thousands of unlimited payout "slot" machines in each of these mega casinos. That is what distinguishes them from the present UK casinos, which currently are permitted no more than 10 such machines.

  I assume that you already have available to the Committee the statistics on these well documented consequences of the casino complexes. The growth industry in America and Australia in the cities with these resort casinos is, apparently, the "Cash for Gold" shops or pawnbrokers, as we know them.

  Because degeneration and not regeneration follows in the wake of resort casinos Blackpool people and particular churchgoers were surprised that, after a trip to the US, the Rt Rev Alan Chesters, Bishop of Blackburn, in whose Diocese Blackpool falls came out in favour of resort casinos "as the lesser of two evils". The other "evil" being the manifestations mentioned above of which Blackpool already has more than its fair share. He has declined to date to say who paid for his trip, though it is perhaps not coincidence that he was accompanied by the Reverend Graham Rainford of St Christopher's church in Blackpool, who is Honorary Chaplain to the Blackpool Pleasure Beach. The enclosed cutting from last Thursday's local newspaper shows the close association of the unholy triumvirate, Blackpool Pleasure Beach Company, the Blackpool Challenge Partnership and the Bishop. Though this clearly has no bearing on the views of resort casinos expressed by his Reverence.

  There is also, obviously, no significance in the decision of the council's committee, against the objection of the residents, (detailed in the enclosed article in last Saturday's edition of the local newspaper) relating to St Christopher's parish centre. The largest individual benefactor to the church's building funds has generally been Mrs Thompson of Blackpool Pleasure Beach.

  Another surprising, and well publicised intervention, was by Lord Wade of Chorlton, who expressed views in the House in favour of the proposals for resort casinos in Blackpool. Most of us were puzzled as to his interest in the subject. To say he is unknown in Blackpool would be to afford him with too great a measure of public recognition locally. The devil is in the small print. Apart from his many and varied interests in the racing fraternity, of which Mr Trevor Hemmings is a well known member, Lord Wade's paid positions include being Chairman of the Pontins Pension Fund. Pontins is a company in the Hemmings stable. Though that obviously had no bearing on the intervention by the good Lord.

  You may, by now, be getting the impression that the interests of the residents and businesses of Blackpool are being subverted to the interests of one or two large concerns. That the case for "resort casinos" is so much "smoke and mirrors" and does not stand up to even the most cursory examination. Unfortunately, because the local Council conducted so called "consultations" recently under the aegis of a council committee, only councillors on that committee were permitted to question Mr Etches and Mr Cam. The questions put to them were anodyne in the extreme. Residents and business people present were, under standing orders, prevented from asking pertinent questions which, therefore, remain unanswered.

  Blackpool residents and businesses have not been asked if they wish to be a "pilot area" for resort casinos. Because none of the absolutely essential studies and appraisals etc mentioned above have been carried out and/or made public it is impossible for these residents and businesses, and with the greatest respect your own Committee, to take an informed view on this particular aspect of gambling expansion. Any oral "evidence" given by the unrepresentative Blackpool delegation to your Committee is clearly premature.

  It is, perhaps, not without significance that no other city or seaside resort has suggested that there should be a "pilot area" let alone that its residents and businesses should be the guinea pigs. Many cities and seaside resorts are desperate for regeneration, most of them being in a far more desperate state than Blackpool, which still boasts 11,000,000 visitors annually despite its decline in popularity. If resort casinos are such a sure fired engine of regeneration these other cities and seaside resorts would surely be queuing up to give evidence to your Committee. They would all be pleading with the Government to be made the "pilot area". May we suggest that the obvious reason why they are not is that it would be a giant leap into the unknown for them? An enormous gamble that they, unlike "the cosy club" are not prepared to contemplate.

  Why would "the cosy club" be prepared to take such a gamble? Who knows? We can only hazard a guess. Mr Etches, as spokesman for Leisure Parcs, has been at pains to emphasise verbally that his company's proposal is for one resort casino only. This despite the frequent reference in the Company's submissions and press releases to the "up to five or six resort casinos" which would be the engine for regeneration and which would generate "up to 25,000 jobs". His prophecy for "Pharaoh's Palace" is only 2,500 jobs so someone needs to go back to the abacus.

  "Pharaoh's Palace", it is proposed, would occupy the council owned old Central station site, presently an open-air car park. These 14 acres compromise, without doubt, the most valuable leisure and retail development site in the town, being immediately behind the Golden Mile and in the shadow of Blackpool Tower. The outline application does not include any details of the proposed components of the proposal, though a conference centre is mentioned in the sheet accompanying the application "which does not form part of this application". When asked at an informal meeting whether a conference centre would be in phase one of any proposed complex, Mr Etches replied that it would not but would have to await the profitability or otherwise of the casino. The words "pig in a poke" spring to mind.

  And so the possible scenario unfolds that, having disposed of the Crown Jewels, Blackpool discovers belatedly that a conference centre "would be unviable" the additional resort casinos, who are to be the engine of regeneration, "due to prevailing market forces", do not materialise and the shareholders of one or two extremely private companies are doing very well thank you. Or are we just being far too cynical?

  The Council is also, apparently lobbying for a local "casino tax" as occurs in the USA. You will be aware better than we do that it is probably a non-starter. Given that the site in question is council-owned the answer is fairly straightforward. The land should not be sold but a long development lease granted at a rent to include a "turnover rent" on the businesses, particularly any casino, included in the complex. On gross turnover of course and at the same rate as any proposed "casino tax". No legislation is required for this but for some reason such a solution has not been included in the public debate.

  Several existing hotels etc in the Blackpool area have intimidated that, if the restrictions were relaxed, they would apply for casino licences. They would take their chances in the marketplace against the two casinos already established in Blackpool. But their ambitions would not displace or destroy existing hotels, shops and catering businesses. The size of their casinos would be limited. None of them would have the space available for the gambling "sheds" associated with resort casinos.

  Blackpool, despite some media comment to the contrary, is still Europe's most popular resort based on our annual visitor figures. However, we do recognise that we must not rest on our laurels and that some regeneration is vital. Resort casinos are not the answer. What are required are new all year round family orientated leisure entertainments not activities in which, by law, only adults can participate.

  The resort casino lobby are promulgating the myth that only their proposals can provide the necessary impetus to protect Blackpool's future well being. That there are no alternatives on the table. That is only the case because neither the Council nor the Challenge Partnership has made any effort to seek alternatives.

  The Council-owned site mentioned above has not been marketed but has been "put on hold" for the last four years. In 1998 Leisure Parcs asked for 12 months to carry out financial appraisals and viability studies for a stand-alone conference centre on the site. Two favourable viability studies for such a centre were said in Challenge Partnership's successful bid for £20,000,000 SRB6 funds to be the "cornerstone" of the bid. These favourable viability studies have never been made public, the reason advanced by the Challenge Partnership being that they were paid for by Leisure Parcs. Yet they formed a main plank of the grant by the Government of these regeneration funds. Resort casinos were not mentioned in the SRB6 submission yet there is a suggestion that up to £4,000,000 may be allocated out of these funds for that purpose. To underpin a private company's "vision" cannot be the purpose for which the Government allocated this regeneration money.

  The Blackpool First Alliance was set up in 2000 to promote and protect the welfare and prosperity of Blackpool's residents and businesses and to foster openness and democracy in the affairs of Blackpool. We are non-party political and our members and supporters are drawn from a very wide spectrum of the Blackpool community.

  We are delighted that your Committee is examining the gambling reform proposals. Your deliberations are certain to be more searching than those carried out by those who purport to represent us, elected and non-elected alike. If the Alliance can be of further assistance then perhaps you would have your secretariat contact the writer.

  16 May 2002

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