Pursuits: Gambling

EVEN IN gambling, things can change for the better. A new chairman of the Gaming Board has come in, and a fresh, more positive attitude to reforming the present outdated system of regulation is already being signalled.

The essence of the change can be summed up in the word entrepreneurial. Peter Dean, aged 59, who took over as chairman in July, comes from a business background. He knows what business and investment is all about - in this context, the leisure industry. Besides his business acumen, Mr Dean also has experience as investment ombudsman, and service on the Monopolies and Mergers Commission.

This does not mean that British casinos are suddenly going to hit the jackpot. It does mean that on certain key issues they can count of the active support of the Gaming Board. First, and most importantly , a new principle in licensing casinos has been approved. As was seen with the recent takeover of the Ritz Club, the old concept of "unstimulated demand" as the sole criterion for casino licensing - a criterion very difficult to establish - has been overtaken, or rather, supplemented.

In future, anyone wanting to open a casino can argue, if demand is not shown, that the Magistrates or the Courts can use what is known as their "residual discretion" in granting a licence. In such cases, the Board will give its opinion on the merits of the case. The thinking behind this change is that competition is a good thing and that the 1968 Gaming Act is out of date.

We have all known that for along time but British casinos can hardly expect immediate approval of all the things they want. But where the Gaming Board can promote common-sense reform, it will do so.

For example, one of the silliest obstacles to development concerns the cost of regulation. The Board's expenses are more than covered by the fees paid by the gaming industry. But this money goes to the Treasury, whereas The Board's funding comes from the Home Office, which is constrained, for all the usual reasons, to hold expenditure down. This applies even when the industry is prepared to help foot the bill for increased costs of regulation, as in a new regime for slot machines. The new Gaming Board will have another go at cracking this shibboleth - with what success remains to be seen.

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