James Moore: Online betting makes Labour's attack on high street bookies look small

Outlook. Plus: Arise again, Sir James Crosby. Probably
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The Independent Online

What could be better than some bookie-bashing to cheer us all up after a 66-1 outsider that virtually nobody backed won the Grand National? This year's national punt will fatten the coffers of the betting industry rather than its customers' wallets. But look: fast out of the stalls, here comes Ed Miliband with an eye-catching run up the rails in the Catch a Cheap Headline stakes.

He'll wipe the smile off the industry's face with another attack on the high street betting shop. If you had bet that this would be high on hot air and low on facts, congratulations! You're a winner.

To listen to the Labour leader and his deputy, Harriet Harman, betting shops are proliferating on the high street like a virus. But they have found a cure: altering the planning laws to allow local councils to block new entrants.

Trouble is, if you believe the Gambling Commission, which was set up by a Labour government, remember, the number of betting shops is already in decline.

That same government dropped the demand test, which allowed existing operators to object to new betting shop openings before a magistrate (it should be said that bookies weren't shy about doing this).

It was that change which sparked a mini boom in betting shop numbers, but between March and September 2012 there was a net loss of 79 shops, and the decline is very likely to continue as the consumer squeeze and competition from online eat into profits and force further closures.

Which will mean more boarded-up premises on the high street.

Part of what motivated Labour's attack was that Ms Harman noticed a lot of bookies in her constituency. Of course, bookmakers have become very visible recently, chiefly because many of the shops that used to be their neighbours have closed down.

Competition from giant online retailers that don't pay tax, and business rates that have spiralled above and beyond the cost of rent in some cases, have, when combined with the consumer squeeze, led to a graveyard of empty shopfronts.

Similar forces are combining to squeeze betting shops, and will eventually have the same net result. A significant proportion are already only marginally profitable.

Ms Harman has talked darkly of a casino on every high street. It seems to have passed her by that any internet-connected device gives you access to a casino in your pocket. With no limit on how much you can stake.

Mr Miliband appears to be on firmer ground when he attacks payday lenders, which have been proved by the Office of Fair Trading to be profiteers. Many are little more than legalised loan sharks.

But seeking to limit the number on the high street rather misses the point. Provident Financial, one of the sector's two big guns, operates door to door, and increasingly online. Which is the only place that Wonga.com can be found.

A cap on the rates they can charge would be a better way of tackling the depredations of the sector, combined with much tougher controls, and the Coalition Government has been weak here. Creating a framework that would encourage responsibly run credit unions wouldn't hurt. But that would take time and imagination. And it wouldn't generate anything like the same degree of publicity.

Arise again, Sir James Crosby. Probably

Poor old Sir James Crosby. He's on his knees after the kicking from the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards last week. But fear not, he can get up. Arise even. He's keeping his knighthood.

Despite the commission's report singling him out as the architect of HBOS's disastrous strategy, which led to losses proportionately twice as large as those that Royal Bank of Scotland heaped on an empty public purse, David Cameron won't be having any quiet words in the ears of civil servants who sit on the Forfeiture Committee.

The committee makes the decisions, as he said yesterday. But it's careful to make the right decisions, and the right decision is to follow the wishes of the Prime Minister. Which is why Sir Fred became plain old Mr Goodwin. And why Sir James will keep his gong.

There's a good reason for this. Even at the height of his powers Mr Goodwin was respected but not much loved. That's not the case with Sir James. He has an awful lot of friends, and not all of them were members of the Court of the now deposed King Gordon (Brown). Some of them still have influence.

Halifax, so the ad goes, gives you Xtra help. And that's what those friends will do for Sir James.

We'll no doubt hear from some of them soon, complaining that the criticism of him is unfair and amounts to yet more "banker bashing".

They'll have made it known to Mr Cameron that he might need a little "Xtra help" from them if he wants another term in office. A flight of fancy? Watch this space.

In the meantime, console yourself with this. Sir James has provided a big service to banking, if not the service he was knighted for. He has demonstrated how not to run one. And he has ensured that regulators will never again boast about their "light touch".

That's actually quite a service. Just a very expensive one.