Sucking on a rolled-up cigarette as he ducked in and out one of the dozens of betting shops in the east London borough of Newham, Sulayman Keita cut a solitary figure as he digested the news of the government’s planned crackdown on fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs).
“What can I say? I’ve lost all my money and it is money that I will never get back,” said the 41-year-old, who began betting after arriving in the UK from Gambia in 1995.
He moved swiftly from gambling on horses to pumping money into the terminals dubbed the “crack cocaine of gambling” where the maximum stakes punters can bet is to be slashed from £100 to £2. Electronic roulette became his game of choice and it is only the intervention of his sister that is keeping him from slotting pound after pound into the terminals.
“I give her the money I get from benefits and she keeps it in an account for me,” he told the Guardian.
“That’s what we do and it works. She gives me £20 for cigarettes but I put it into the games every day. I’ll leave my niece at school and then I’ll come here. But I’m grateful to my sister for what she’s doing.”
“I’m no good with money. I can’t pass one of these shops without going in to play.”
Keita reeled off the names of the chains – Betfred, Paddy Power and Coral – clustered along Newham High Street, which has become a battleground in recent years between the betting companies and the local authority that attempted, in vain, to stop their expansion.
The council gave up on using the courts after losing a 2014 legal battle to stop the opening of a new Paddy Power in the borough. Instead, last year, Newham spearheaded a plea from 93 councils for the maximum FOBT bet to be cut to £2.
Newham’s mayor, Rokhsana Fiaz, welcomed the government plans, which she described as “long overdue”.
“The industry has brought this upon itself by targeting the most deprived areas in the country,” said Fiaz, who pointed to polling suggesting that there was widespread support for action to address gambling. Some 84% of local people in the borough – the country’s 25th most deprived local authority area and home to 81 betting shops – wanted to see a reduction in the amount of money people could spend on FOBTs.
That sentiment was evident along the high street.
“You see people of all types, men and women, coming and going at all times and you just think sometimes: ‘Oh my god,’” said Lynn Hames, who works opposite one of the shops.
“The high street itself just seems to have fallen away. The decent shops have gone and the betting shops seem to be all along it.”
Manning a stall a few yards along, 78-year-old Bryan Mundy also cursed the gambling outlets: “We used to have Marks & Spencer, British Home Stores and everything here. Now it’s just these kinds of shops.”
Custom was brisk at lunchtime inside the betting outlets, who varied in their clientele. Inside one of the two Paddy Powers, a group of men loudly debated the government’s proposals in Urdu, interspersing their conversation with English phrases, including the words “£2 limit” and “crack cocaine of gambling”.
Inside the dark interior of a branch of @GamingFun, half a dozen women dropped coins into flashing betting machines. A poster in the entrance of the same shop, meanwhile, advertised vacancies with hours through the night, from 11pm to 7am.
Outside, Keita shook his head at the thought:“There are 14 here on the street and nearby. It’s way too many. There only needs to be one, surely.”