City makes its play in high stakes game
Newcastle's bid to house the UK's first Las Vegas-style supercasino faces judgment day today as the panel advising the Government on the licence arrives in the city.
A public examination of the bid will be held in Newcastle's Thistle Hotel today, at which the panel will put Newcastle Council's proposals under the spotlight.
The independent Casino Advisory Panel has been given the job by Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell of deciding where the UK's first supercasino should be.
Newcastle's bid - one of seven shortlisted by the panel - has been lodged in the hope of securing funds to create a new convention centre in the city capable of bringing major conferences to the North-East.
Council bosses are convinced that the only way to provide the £100m cost of building a centre is by linking it to a lucrative casino development.
Convention centres in other cities have been paid for using European money or through land deals that are not available to Newcastle. If the city wins the licence, it will ask casino developers to include a 1,500 capacity convention centre in their plans if they want to win the right to operate the complex. Four firms have so far indicated an interest.
Council leader John Shipley said last night: "We have an extremely strong case. We don't have a preferred bidder, so we are flexible about who we work with. I think that will give us a better outcome, with stronger public gain.
"I remain very confident. Obviously, there's only one licence at the moment, but there are continuing rumours that in the medium term the Government may decide to grant further licences, so we need to make the strongest possible case.
"The hearing is pretty fundamental. I think it matters profoundly.
"If we do well, it will help either immediately or in the medium term to secure a licence. If we do badly, it will be more difficult to make a comeback.
"If we were to be ruled out at this stage, it would put back the prospects of getting a regional convention centre by many years."
A report on the potential impact of a convention centre by accountants PricewaterhouseCoopers said it could generate between £25m and £63m a year and create 335 to 1,088 full time jobs.
The NewcastleGateshead Initiative says it has had to turn down at least 40 major events attracting 40,000 delegates because of a lack of a suitable venue. This is reckoned to have cost the city £20m over three years.
The centre would also be a venue for major scientific conferences linked to the Science City project, Coun Shipley said.
However, religious groups will argue at today's hearing that a casino is too high a price to pay for a convention centre.
They fear it would lead to more gambling problems, debt and crime.
Decision-makers will hear from those for and against
Today's examination will see backers and opponents of Newcastle's bid given the chance to state their cases.
They will be questioned by members of an independent panel set up by Government to recommend where the licence should go.
Newcastle Council will lead the case for the city's bid. It will be backed by regional development agency One NorthEast and the North-East Assembly.
A final decision on the winner of the UK's solitary supercasino licence will be made in December.
Council bosses believe the number may be extended in future, and an impressive showing at today's hearing could place the city in a very strong position in any second round of licensing.
Support for the bid today will also come from marketing body the NewcastleGateshead Initiative, the Newcastle Partnership, made up of public, private and community groups in the city, and the North-East Chamber of Commerce.
Opponents invited to the inquiry are the Christian Institute, Newcastle Quakers and the national Campaign Against Supercasino Expansion. The North-East Council on Addictions will speak about the potential for problem gambling to emerge and the services available to cope.
Government Office for the North-East will also speak at the event, which is the fourth out of seven public examinations of the venues, which were shortlisted in May.
The inquiries began on Wednesday last week in Greenwich - possibly the most controversial of the shortlisted venues. Panel chairman Professor Stephen Crow was forced to deny allegations that the bid to create a casino in the Millennium Dome would receive preferential treatment because of Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott's links to billionaire tycoon Philip Anschutz, whose AEG company owns the site.
Mr Prescott stayed at Mr Anschutz's Colorado ranch last year, and received a gift of a cowboy suit.
Claims that the Dome is in pole position grew in volume when it emerged that building work on the casino had already started.
Further examinations were held in Cardiff on Friday, and Glasgow yesterday.
They continue in Sheffield tomorrow and Manchester on Thursday. The series of meetings will end on Friday in Blackpool.
That bid ran into difficulty yesterday when the Noble Organisation, which owns the Coral Island entertainment complex in Blackpool, launched a legal challenge in the High Court.
Brent, originally on the short list with a bid for a site near Wembley stadium, pulled out two weeks ago.
The Government had originally planned a larger number of super-casinos, but restricted it to one in order to get its Gambling Bill through Parliament.
Page 2: Is this gamble just too great?
Is this gamble just too great?
The effect of a supercasino on gambling problems is impossible to predict, according to an expert.
Theresa Tunstall, of GamCare, says betting shops, the National Lottery, the internet and current casinos are already prompting 22,000 calls a year to the charity's helpline.
It was not possible to say whether a Las Vegas-style casino complex would increase that, she said: "We really don't know. You could say if you make gambling more available, there could be some people who go in who have a tendency towards addiction.
"But it won't just be a local issue. Wherever this is, it will have to bring in people from around the country, around Europe and possibly further afield."
Ms Tunstall is not against supercasinos in principle. "What we need is regulated gambling, which without a doubt is what this will be," she said.
GamCare wants to see leaflets available in the casino advising people with a problem where they can go for help, and staff trained to give the right advice.
It believes the opportunity should be there for people to bar themselves from a casino - authorising staff not to let them in for six months to help them take control of their betting. "We would be looking for that sort of co-operation with the company running the regional casino - we do work with all of the gambling industry so that the sources of information are there."
A recent report by the North-East Council on Addictions, commissioned by Newcastle City Council, said the city "has without doubt the most robust and diverse range of treatment services specifically designed to respond to problem gamblers".
It says young men are most likely to gamble in casinos, as it is viewed as an extension of nightclubbing. Fruit machines are the favourite type of gambling for 51% of NECA's clients in Newcastle. A supercasino could have 1,250 machines with unlimited prizes.
But just 11% of GamCare clients nationally list fruit machines as their main gambling source. Ms Tunstall said: "You can't necessarily say what would be more addictive to a problem gambler. Frequently, they will spend £40 on the lottery, then £100 in a betting shop and then go to a casino to go on in the evening. It's the adrenalin rush they get addicted to, rather than any one particular form of gambling."
The possibility of an increase in gambling problems in the city will be raised at a Newcastle hearing today in front of a Government panel which will decide where licences should be awarded. William Cunningham, clerk to the Newcastle Quakers, expressed concerns in a letter to the panel that referrals to agencies for problem gamblers were already on the increase.
Tyneside had difficulties with "informal borrowing through doorstep lending, often at extortionate rates of interest".
He wrote: "The attempt to present these casinos as a `civic virtue' we entirely reject. The attempt to make a profit out of the inevitable loss and possible suffering of others is the very antithesis of `love thy neighbour'."
Bid unlikely to be caught in traffic
Problems with the North's roads network should not hinder Newcastle's bid for a casino licence, business leaders say.
It is expected a Las Vegas-style casino would prove a major tourist draw.
Leaders of the bid hope to link it to a convention centre, which would include space for conferences for 1,500 delegates.
But the North East Chamber of Commerce, which has led calls for road improvements, believes congestion problems on the A1 and A19 will not be worsened by the complex.
Rob McMullen, NECC's Tyne and Wear policy manager, said: "People coming here on the roads wouldn't be travelling at peak times. A casino might attract a lot of people, but they would be likely to come in the evening, so it wouldn't add to the congestion problems on the roads.
"The convention centre would be linked to hotels, and we expect many people would come in the evening and stay overnight rather than all drive up at rush hour."
Public transport bosses are confident their systems would cope with an extra influx of passngers.
Bernard Garner, director general of Nexus, which runs the Metro and oversees public transport across Tyne and Wear, has called on the council to make the city's transport links a central feature of the bid.
A Nexus spokesman said: "Newcastle has a fast, efficient and reliable transport infrastructure with both the Metro and bus network delivering excellent links to and from the city centre."
Competition `makes city the ideal place'
Supporters of Newcastle's bid will today claim the city's planned competition between developers makes it the ideal place to pilot a super casino.
Just one licence is on offer, with the Government proposing to allow one casino to test the impact on regeneration.
Unlike other cities, which have signed partnerships with gaming firms, Newcastle plans to invite companies to compete for the right to operate a casino.
Developers would be told their plans must include a regional convention centre. The council would then choose on the basis of the proposals which to offer the licence to.
Backers of the bid believe this competitive system will mean the city gets the best possible deal and allows the maximum regeneration benefits to be tested.
Newcastle Gateshead Initiative chief executive Andrew Dixon said: "The competition for operators is the most important element. It will deliver economic benefits to the city. We're the only city that's not signed up to a specific operator.
"We've done an awful lot of research and homework, and I think Newcastle City Council have put together an incredibly strong case."
The character of the city also means it will provide the best test of regeneration, Mr Dixon contends.
He said: "What we've got is a very compact city with the real potential for growth as a result of a casino and convention centre.
"Whichever site is chosen, what we will be doing is taking unusually large pieces of brownfield land close to a city centre and effectively expanding the whole of the city centre. What all the sites do is push the regeneration of the city further out.
"There will be very significant opportunities for jobs, particularly for people in some of the most disadvantaged wards in the city."
However, Newcastle-based Christian lobby group the Christian Institute argues that the North-East is the wrong place to house the pilot, because a casino would "make the poor poorer".
Its submission to the advisory panel says: "Planning a major social experiment in the poorest region in England seems unwise when it is well documented that gambling disproportionately affects those with the least disposable income."
The organisation quoted research conducted in 2000 showing there are three times as many problem gamblers in households with an income of less than £15,600 compared to those with an income of more than £32,000.
It also disputes the necessity of a new convention centre, when the Sage Gateshead was judged suitable to house the Labour Party's spring conference last year.
And it claims that evidence from Atlantic City shows that the presence of a casino could have a damaging effect on small businesses in the city.
Image will need to be carefully managed - expert
Tyneside's image will need to be carefully managed to make sure a casino does not detract from its reputation for culture, an expert said yesterday.
Jennifer Hinves, programme leader of the cultural management unit at Northumbria University, said the development would need the right marketing strategy to keep Newcastle's image intact.
"The party city image was instrumental in the early days of culture-led regeneration in positioning the region, but I think now we have moved away from that," she said.
"I don't think we would want to go back to the drink-related problems we had with the city's image. I don't think a casino would necessarily take us back to the party city stuff but it has to be carefully managed.
"I think NGI [Newcastle Gateshead Initiative] are a very capable destination marketing body. I feel confident they would be able to manage that transition so that it retains the culture-led strand.
"If it were managed well, it could still be in keeping with the culture-led strategy. There would also be associated developments along with the casino such as the conference centre, which would supplement the Sage's facilities."
Newcastle City Council deputy leader David Faulkner said: "I don't think a casino will take us back to party city. We've already got four casinos and gambling is part of the night-time culture. It will remain so if we're successful in getting a licence or not. If we deliver a convention centre, that will give us another performance venue, so I think on balance it's to our advantage."
Five sites could host supercasino complex
Five locations have been named as potential sites for the complex.
The two considered the most likely are sites at Pottery Lane and next to St James's Park Metro station.
The former is to the east of the Metro Radio Arena, on land owned partly by Network Rail and partly by property firm Omnivale. Mississippi-based gaming firm Isle of Capri has an option on this site.
The latter site, south of Newcastle United's stadium, is partly owned by the football club and partly by the city council. MGM Mirage has an option on this land.
Two more possible locations lie to the south of the arena, owned by land developer Calders, and east of George Street, owned by the council and a series of private owners.
The fifth site identified was the Tyne Brewery - though this has since been talked down by council leader John Shipley, after controversy over a potential clash with the Science Central project earmarked for the area.
Though land on the site would be available, senior councillors say it is unlikely to be seriously considered.
Job creation seen by many to be the biggest benefit
The impact on jobs was seen as the main benefit of a supercasino among shoppers in Newcastle yesterday.
Retired butcher Kenneth Foster, a 69-year-old from Mansell Place, Montagu Estate, Newcastle, said: "If it brings revenue into the city, then it would be a good thing. But that's as long as it doesn't cause problems for neighbours.
"I might go there myself to see what it was like - but I don't think I'd be a regular."
Insurance broker Michael Vowles [ok], 40, of Morgans Way, Blaydon, said: "I'm not a gambler, but I wouldn't mind if it happens. I suppose the downside is that it may attract crime, but the positive point is the jobs that it would create. It should be good for employment."
Christine Bramley, 40, a teaching assistant from Bradley Road, Prudhoe, said: "How much it would benefit the city depends on how many people would want to go to casinos. I've never been to a casino in my life.
"But gambling has never come across as a big problem in the North-East, so I don't see why not."
Catherine Foster, a business assistant in a bank, is yet to be convinced. The 49-year-old from The Close, Winlaton, said: "I'm half and half with it.
"I can see why they're doing it, but I'm not sure whether we really need another casino.
"I'm not against gambling, and anything that will bring extra jobs and tourism is good. But I'm not convinced that another casino is the best way to do that."
And Mark Newton, 29, a staff nurse from Hunter's Court, Gosforth, Newcastle said: "A supercasino would more than likely lead to an increase in gambling problems. That would outweigh the jobs impact in my opinion."