Place your bets in gambling shake-up

The gaming industry's major players are jockeying for position ahead of deregulation
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The Independent Online

The tote is symbolic of Britain's archaic gaming laws. While rivals such as Ladbrokes and Coral have embraced the revolution that is sweeping the betting sector by opening state-of-the-art new shops, the state-controlled bookmaker has managed the odd lick of paint and a new sign.

But all that is about to change. The cosy old world of the Tote, where re-painting the shop fronts green instead of red constitutes a major image change, is about to be shaken up, courtesy of an impending Bill to deregulate the UK gaming industry.

What happens to the Tote will depend - at least in part - on pointers given by one Robin Cook, the former foreign secretary, who has just been signed up by the City financial public relations firm that advises the bookmaker. Mr Cook, a fanatical racing enthusiast, will weigh into the debate on whether to sell the Tote to a racing trust or simply end its pool betting monopoly by allowing other operators to run similar services.

While the Government decides what to do with the Tote, the rest of the gaming world is busy preparing for the benefits of deregulation.

So far, the much-hyped gaming revolution has been limited to the relaxation of some of the more antiquated rules governing casinos. High and low rollers alike can now reach for an alcoholic drink to slake their thirst and steady their nerves when deciding whether to risk next month's mortgage repayments on their number coming up. If it all gets too much, they can sit back and enjoy some live singing and dancing thanks to the relaxation of the rules governing live entertainment.

But this is small beer for industry giants such as Rank and Gala. They know that the real money lies in the potential to open US-style gaming centres, where punters can flit between roulette, slot machines, bingo and placing a bet on the 3.45pm at Sandown Park - all without going outside. And it isn't just the UK operators who are alive to this licence to print money. Gaming groups have been lining up to muscle in on the UK market ahead of deregulation, with the mighty US operators at the top of the queue.

Harrah's Entertainment, MGM Mirage, Kerzner International and Isle of Capri Casinos are among the US gaming heavyweights to have swooped on the UK market in recent weeks. Last month saw Harrah's strike a deal with Gala to invest up to $1bn (£600m) to open vast new gaming complexes up to eight times bigger than the casinos Gala operators. The sites will also boast 300-room hotels and a spectrum of restaurants catering to every taste.

"We don't want to wait until the starting gun is pulled," John Kelly, Gala's chief executive said yesterday, referring to the delays likely to affect the deregulation timetable. "We want to make sure we are up and running once we get a deregulated landscape. Teaming up with the largest US operator will give us a serious benefit."

UK gaming groups have been subject to stringent regulation since 1968, when the current gaming laws were enacted to clean up the industry and protect the country from gaming's less savoury side. While industry observers say there is no pre-requisite for UK operators to seek overseas partners, most agree that such partnerships are sensible.

Andrew Burnett, a gaming analyst at Merrill Lynch, said: "Although I don't think there is any requirement for UK operators to partner with any US group - I don't believe American brands carry a great deal, if any, sway in the UK - I do think the skill base of US operators is unmatched anywhere in the world."

Not all American groups have chosen to partner a local operator. Sol Kerzner, the South African gaming tycoon who runs Kerzner International with his son, Butch, made the most of an existing relationship with London Clubs International to acquire a licence to open a casino in Northampton. Some straddle both camps: MGM Mirage took a small stake in Metro Casinos, a private company opening a new site in Bristol, but is also thought to be toying with opening a Manchester United-themed casino venture on its own. And not all UK casinos lack expertise. The silver lining to the ill-fated foray by London Clubs into the Las Vegas market is that its management team has experience of running the sort of casinos that deregulation will usher in.

The main snag threatening to take the wind out of certain sails is that governments being governments, deregulation is not progressing as fast as initially hoped. The optimistic pledge made by Tessa Jowell, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, when she unveiled the Government's response to Alan Budd's review of the gaming laws last year, that a bill would be included in this autumn's Queen's Speech looks misguided. Richard Caborn, the minister charged with overseeing the bill, was forced last week to poor cold water on the "rumours that the Government has got cold feet about legislation". But even he conceded the likelihood that parliamentary time to consider the bill "will not become available until later next year".

Although most industry insiders are sanguine about the timetable, Mr Burnett points out that any promise to include the bill in next year's Queen's Speech is unlikely to have considered the chance of further delays caused by what will then be an impending general election. While he stresses that "there is no danger of the bill being shelved", Mr Burnett reckons 2006 is a more realistic estimate, which means "very early 2008 is the most likely date for full implementation to bring in all the treasures that the gaming bill holds".

Meanwhile, the Government is not being idle. Ms Jowell published the first part of a draft gambling bill earlier this month and has set up a cross-party parliamentary committee to scrutinise each draft. She promises this will "build parliamentary understanding and public confidence in the proposals", which industry players hope will speed things up. The committee is due to report its findings next April.

There is movement within the industry as well. More than 30 organisations from across the world of gaming have recently joined forces to form a lobby group aimed at persuading the Government of the economic benefits of deregulation. Co-ordinated by Gala's Mr Kelly, the Cross-Industry Group for Gaming Deregulation has written to MPs claiming that overhauling the laws could lead to the creation of at least 50,000 new jobs and up to £1.7bn of inward investment. It reckons the Treasury will reap a minimum of £350m in extra taxes per year.

With a promise from the industry to cough up £3m to prevent and tackle problem gambling, the main downside to deregulation is likely to be its popularity. Paul Korolkiewicz, a gaming expert at the accountancy firm KPMG, warns: "The risk is that everybody will try to get into this too quickly and there will be a plethora of companies all vying for the same market." With the carnage of the saturated health clubs sector still fresh in the mind of the City, that is one mistake gaming groups will be anxious to avoid if they are to stand any chance of funding their American-style dreams.

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