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Tuesday, 26 February, 2002, 17:23 GMT
Bishop dices with casino future
Blackpool sea front
Blackpool could be transformed by casino-hotels
The Bishop of Blackburn has been to Las Vegas to see if the relaxation of gambling laws can offer help to Blackpool. BBC News Online's Bill Wilson reports.

With talk of relaxing UK gambling laws to allow seaside resorts such as Blackpool to become casino havens, many Christians are worried about the possible effect on the nation's moral health.

A report by Sir Alan Budd for the Treasury has called for a radical overhaul of gambling restrictions in the biggest shake-up since 1968.

At the same time entrepreneur Trevor Hemmings, who owns the Blackpool Tower, Water Gardens and pier, has said he wants to open a 24-hour casino-hotel, designed on a "Pharaoh's Palace" theme, complete with sphinxes and pyramids.

What I knew about gambling could have been written on the back of a stamp

Alan Chesters, Bishop of Blackburn

Jackpots, currently limited by law, could soar, and other gambling restrictions would be swept aside if the government agrees with Sir Alan.

As the Right Reverend Alan Chesters, the Anglican Bishop of Blackburn, responsible for Blackpool's spiritual health, explains, Christians can do more than simply agonise over these potential changes from the sidelines.

Indeed, so keen was he to discover the possible benefits and pitfalls at first-hand, that he has just spent a week in the USA examining gambling in Nevada and Mississippi.

'Both sides'

The Church of England is part of the Blackpool Regeneration Challenge Partnership, which is seeking to revive the seaside resort, which, to use the Bishop's words, "has seen better days".

As he said to BBC News Online: "I was constantly being asked what I thought of the gambling proposals for Blackpool, but what I knew about it could have been written on the back of a postage stamp.

"I believe church leaders should be informed before they pontificate, so I decided to go out to America and see for myself.

"I tried to look at everything from both sides of the track, and as well as visiting Las Vegas, also went to Biloxi, a Missisipi town which claims to have been transformed by gambling.

The bishop visited casinos and a jail

"We went to Vegas because we were told we would find out more about gambling there than anywhere else on earth.

"We tried to meet everyone and everyone. We met the management of the Paris casino, an establishment with a French and Eiffel Tower theme.

"We met a gambler, who was also a professor of sociology, and showed us around many gambling establishments.

"At the same time we met gambling addicts, and went to the local jail for an afternoon to talk to the people there.

Church bingo

"We also visited charities for homeless people and battered wives. Now, after speaking to people from all sides of the spectrum, I feel that I know what I am talking about."

Despite the twinkiling neon lights, and rows of gaming tables and slot machines, the Bishop resisted any temptation to have a fling and chance his luck.

He said: "I am not a gambler, but I run raffles and churches have bingo sessions.

"It is all about doing things in moderation for me. Although I saw a lot in Las Vegas and Biloxi, Mississippi, I wasn't persuaded to gamble.

"It seemed like a midless exercise to me. There was sun shining outside, but people were sitting inside in front of row and rows of slot machines.

The Alladin Casino and Hotel in Las Vegas
Blackpool could see grand casino-hotels

"But I found the hotels and shopping magnificent. There is a tremendous atmosphere in Las Vegas, and it is a fantastic place for eating and drinking,

"As well as the big-name casinos there is also the local casino, which is a sort of bingo-plus, and which may be the sort of thing that Blackpool could use if it is chosen as a a gambling pilot area."

The UK's Budd gambling review, published in July 2001, went beyond most industry estimates in its far-reaching nature, promising a boost to the civic coffers of places like Blackpool through a gambling tax.

'Safety nets'

In the 1980s, Blackpool attracted 20 million visitors every year. That figure has slumped to 10 million and the town in the 32nd-most-deprived in the country.

In Biloxi, the Bishop says, those on both sides of the moral argument agree the move to deregulate gambling in 1992 has brought economic prosperity.

The Bishop said: "Whereas before there were one in four people unemployed, now it is one in 20.

"But there are two concerns for me. The first is that you must ensure that there are sufficient social safety nets in place for those for whom this will be an addiction.

The difficulty for me is trying to decide whether something like this will actually bring more benefits than problems to Blackpool

Alan Chesters, Bishop of Blackburn

"The other is whether the money that is created will be used to help the local economy, to build things like schools and pay decent wages.

"In Biloxi they claim that gyms and schools and medical centres have all been built because of the relaxation of gambling laws."

Under the Budd proposals Blackpool casinos could offer 1m jackpots, fruit machines would be linked nationally, and the current 24-hour waiting time between an individual joining a casino and gaming would be abolished.

Now it is up to Parliament to decide whether to change the law or not, with the next stage being the publication of a White Paper.

As a member of the House of Lords, the Bishop will be involved in any final decision-making process to change the current laws.

The gambling strip in Las Vegas, Nevada
The bishop spent a week in Las Vegas
The Bishop said: "The difficulty for me is trying to decide whether something like this will actually bring more benefits than problems to Blackpool.

"If it does go ahead, then what is to stop Manchester or Brighton doing the same, and then Blackpool might be back where it started?

"On the other hand, Blackpool has poverty and economic problems. It might be that there is no other way of overcoming them than bringing in this extended gambling.

"The jury is out for me. It is a very difficult conundrum. But what alternatives are on the table?"

Click here to go to Lancashire
See also:

10 Jan 02 | England
Blackpool bids for casino culture
04 Oct 01 | England
Blackpool's 'Vegas' aim derided
25 Feb 01 | Business
Seaside towns face decay
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