How to spot the good and bad of gambling

Roulette wheel 4 April 2012

By Edwin Colyer

Judging whether a casino is good or bad for an area can be a tricky task, and opinions depend very much on who you ask. Gambling is closely associated with crime, drugs and violence. Problem gambling can tear families, even communities apart. But licenced gambling venues also attract business , generate income and employment and bring visitors to an area.

A research group from Lancaster University has developed an impact assessment framework which can help local authorities and other organisations tease out the good and bad that gambling and new casinos bring to a community.

Professor Corinne May-Chahal has been leading gambling impact research in the UK since 2007, when she realised that local authorities needed some tools and models to assess the impact of gambling activities licensed under the 2005 Gambling Act. The Act was something new for local authorities and they had no experience of how to make impartial decisions and recommendations based on evidence and sound research. Working in partnership with the Responsible Gambling Fund, the Lancaster research group ran an ESRC seminar series to guide policymakers, the gambling industry, researchers and local authorities on the best way to conduct impact assessments.

"It is really important to get away from moral judgements," explains Professor May-Chahal. "You need clear consideration of the positive and negative effects. This then lets you work out ways to enhance and promote the positives and mitigate or prevent the negatives. I want the public to know what is good and what may cause problems."

Following these seminars Professor May-Chahal then developed an impact assessment framework which outlines the steps and methods local authorities should follow to identify the good and bad effects of a new casino. Local authorities can use the framework to gather a wealth of existing socio-economic data and local knowledge and community links to build up a picture of the area and monitor the influence of new casinos.

"The framework helps to identify what data you need and where to find it," Professor May-Chahal continues. "It encourages local authorities to make use of their community links, like community safety partnerships or business networks for example. The community is one of the best watchdogs, they can discern what works for them. The framework is less about the specific questions you need to ask and more about the processes you need to follow to get to the right people."

The framework is being used by local authorities like Newham in east London, which recently made headlines after being awarded a licence for a large casino complex to be built in the heart of the community - the first of its kind in the UK.

Like many of the areas selected to host the new small and large casinos, Newham must deal with another complication: "How do councils work out whether any of the benefits or problems they observe are due to the casino or to other developments?" asks Professor May-Chahal. "We are working closely with councils to develop a model which will help them to filter out these effects in London and elsewhere. The best method is to compare local authorities with a similar neighbouring area; this comparative analysis will help us to distinguish between the effects of things like the Olympics and new leisure facilities or hotels, and the effects of casinos themselves."

Alongside her work with local authorities, Professor May-Chahal will continue with her ESRC research to investigate the effects of gambling on individuals. She has worked extensively with the prison population which has a high proportion of problem gamblers.

"We are getting much closer to understanding the risk factors which may lead to problem gambling," she says. "Our research findings should make it easier to spot people at risk before they run into trouble, and identify those who would benefit from early intervention."