Even the most libertarian groups want the nanny state when it comes to gambling

I can't recall the last time when the powers of local authorities to restrain the market-place were proclaimed
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Powerful newspapers on the right and left are calling on ministers to intervene and block the expansion of casinos in poorer areas. The Conservatives - and quite a few Labour MPs - are joining the crusade. All of them cry that there are times when markets must not reign supreme. Sometimes people must be protected from themselves. Regulation by government is the new political fashion.

Powerful newspapers on the right and left are calling on ministers to intervene and block the expansion of casinos in poorer areas. The Conservatives - and quite a few Labour MPs - are joining the crusade. All of them cry that there are times when markets must not reign supreme. Sometimes people must be protected from themselves. Regulation by government is the new political fashion.

We're not used to this. Normally ministers are apologetically defensive when they justify attempts to influence the way we live: "Of course the state must not be too bossy ... on the whole we wouldn't dream of telling people what to do ... " But at Prime Minister's Questions yesterday, Tony Blair had no choice but to move in the opposite direction. He sought to appease the supporters of regulation, arguing that 90 per cent of the Government's proposals were aimed at more effective regulation of gambling.

In effect he was saying: "So you all want a nanny state? Well, we are nannying the gamblers and potential gamblers in most of the proposed legislation." What is more, Mr Blair pointed out, local authorities would have the power to reject bids for casinos. I cannot recall the last political controversy when the powers of local authorities to restrain the market-place were proclaimed.

Many of those on either side of the current divide are on shaky ground. The Government's latest position is a painful contortion: it will permit casinos to flourish in theory, but opponents should not worry because councils or ministers responsible for planning will block many of the bids. This has a convoluted Monty Pythonesque logic: ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Building of Casinos (but not too many of them) Bill. The Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell, declares that opposition to casinos in poorer areas is a snobbish reaction. As the most senior planning minister, John Prescott stands ready to block some of the bids. Mr Prescott is not known for his snobbish disdain for the working classes.

With varying degrees of boldness, ministers have dared to address the country's dietary and smoking habits. They have also intervened subtly to improve the balance between work and quality of life. Yet they seek to encourage gambling in big casinos.

This is a robustly consistent line compared with the Conservatives. Now they oppose the Government's proposals, having been fairly supportive in the recent past. Last month, Michael Howard created a new shadow cabinet spokesman for deregulation. The political figure occupying the post is no less than John Redwood, who plans to demolish "red tape" with a pair of hyperactive scissors.

In opposition all initiatives are symbolic. The creation of such a high-profile post was aimed at sending out a single message: "regulation is bad; deregulation is good; thank you and good night." Yet along comes a policy that provokes calls for more regulation and the Conservatives change their line. I can almost see a new headline: "Regulation is good for you, says shadow minister for deregulation.' Perhaps that is why Mr Howard did not raise the issue at Prime Minister's Questions yesterday.

Some of the Government's tormentors in the media are even less consistent. Whenever Tessa Jowell dares courageously to raise issues relating to lifestyle and diet she is slaughtered: how dare she tell us what to do? In some of our newspapers Ms Jowell is portrayed unflatteringly as Nanny Jowell. When Gordon Brown commissioned a report on preventive health measures relating to diet, he too was criticised for interfering with people's lives. It was up to them how they chose to eat. Now Ms Jowell is attacked, in effect, for not being enough of a nanny over gambling.

As Mr Blair argued yesterday, the new gambling bill includes proposals for a powerful new regulator and the removal of gaming machines from inappropriate locations such as fast-food outlets. The bill is also aimed at bringing the soaring levels of online gambling into a regulatory framework. There is much in the package, therefore, to meet the new tide in favour of regulation. Ministerial sources further point out that the new casinos will also be regulated while helping to regenerate cities and decaying resorts. They insist that the revival of poorer areas, rather than a further degradation, is their honourable motive.

But this is part of the problem. In theory local authorities will be able to block the casinos, but will they be in a position to turn down substantial sums of cash? I doubt it. Cash-strapped councils will be tempted to take the money for other worthy projects.

Although councils will find it difficult to resist the financial temptations, I detect little enthusiasm at a local level. Earlier this year senior, Labour figures with close connections to Brighton council expressed despair to me about the prospect of a large casino or two defacing the increasingly stylish sea front, and the potential social problems that would arise. I am surprised ministers have been so taken aback, considering that some of their colleagues were worrying for several months about this issue. It is an indication that the channels of communication between ministers and local party members, councillors and even more senior figures are not working properly.

Still, there is much political profit from this gambling bill. At last there is a recognition that those we elect have a duty and a right sometimes to tell us what we can and cannot do. Of course, there is too much petty and unnecessary regulation, enforced by tedious bureaucrats who seem more important than they really are. Ministers should be constantly alert to costly and pointless rules, but that does not mean all regulation is bad.

The case in favour is rarely heard. There is no populist counter to the deceptively enticing slogan "Get the state off our backs". Yet while we moan about tyrannical planning regulations, we express relief that ugly housing has not wrecked some coastal areas. There is a reason why parts of Cornwall and Devon have not become the Costa del Sol. It is called regulation. If the markets flourished without such controls, Britain would soon make the Costa del Sol seem like an area of outstanding natural beauty.

Who else is there to tell us what is good and bad for us? It is asking too much of private builders to exercise voluntary restraint as they contemplate a lucrative property construction overlooking a beautiful part of the coastline. More widely, no one can reasonably call on the private sector to put off potential consumers by screaming about the unhealthiness of their products: "If you buy this product there is a high chance you will put on weight and over time suffer from a heart attack." Governments can make those warnings, and arguably have a responsibility to do so.

Now it can act. There is a new consensus about the need for ministers to protect us from the dark temptations of gambling. Good. Soon Mr Howard will be under pressure to appoint a shadow minister for regulation. Let's hear it for the nanny state.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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