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Last Updated: Wednesday, 30 August 2006, 16:53 GMT 17:53 UK
Non-gambler heads casino inquiry
Sketch
By Jackie Storer
Political reporter, BBC News, Jury's Hotel, London

Professor Stephen Crowe
The first hearing was a pretty sedate affair
He is a lay preacher who has a slightly grandfatherly demeanour and a voice that sounds uncannily like that of TV entertainer and raconteur Denis Norden.

Prof Stephen Crow says the closest he gets to gambling is a "very occasional flutter" at his local church raffle.

The 72-year-old seems an unlikely choice to head a panel that is to decide the controversial location of Britain's first Las Vegas-style super-casino.

He is not, he has confessed, a regular visitor to the roulette wheel.

At the first of a serious of hearings to debate the merits of a seven-strong short-list of possible venues, the former chief planning officer could easily have been overseeing a parish council meeting, the proceedings were so sedate.

Independent streak

But in case there was any doubt the Casino Advisory Panel was not up to the job, he was quick to nip in the bud any suggestion that his team were anything other than independent.

The bespectacled father-of-three revealed that he was born in West Ham, London, and that he was a stickler for time-keeping

The professor also wanted to make it clear that the bid for a super-casino at the Millennium Dome in south-east London was not a "done deal".

And, through fear of reigniting controversy over John Prescott's connection with Philip Anschutz, owner of Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG), which leases the Dome site, he insisted the deputy prime minister had played no role in the process.

Those caveats aside, Wednesday's hearing at a plush London hotel round the back of Tottenham Court Road was under way with very little sign of the controversy that has characterised the casino debate so far.

This was probably just as well as the acoustics in the banqueting-style hall that housed the proceedings were terrible.

Several rows back from the round-table discussion, chaired by the quietly-spoken professor, the audience was not happy.

Jobs bonanza

The occasional interjection of complaint or scratchy-sounding microphone broke the relative peace. It was also difficult to see who was trying to make a point.

First off the blocks to argue the case for the Dome site was Peter Brooks, deputy leader of Greenwich Council, who insisted the plan would bring great riches, jobs and tourism to the south-east London peninsula.

However, Prof Crow seemed doubtful that local people would benefit from the jobs bonanza.

He said on a recent visit to a hotel in one of the most deprived areas of London, many of the staff were from Portugal.

While he had "nothing against" the Portuguese, he wondered why they were not Londoners.

Conscientious objections

Stephen Nelson, president of Greenwich, Bexley and Lewisham Chamber of Commerce, said he was sure the local workforce would benefit from the influx of work.

But the Rev Malcolm Torry, of the multi-faith Greenwich Peninsula Chaplaincy, said some Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs might refuse to work in casino on "conscience" grounds.

Bob Scott, of the business-orientated Greenwich Peninsula Partnership, said he had come across no opposition to the Dome plan during a series of public meetings in the area.

"It was quite hard as chairman of these meetings to whip up any opposition at all," he said.

However, Karina Berzins, of the London East Research Institute, expressed concern that young people visiting the Dome arena might be encouraged into gambling.

Stickler

David Campbell, chief executive of AEG Europe, said under 18s would not be allowed into the casino, which would be three storeys above floor level and guarded by security.

Greenwich's police commander Chief Supt Peter Lowton warned that the Dome could become an "iconic target", adding that contingency plans were under way to protect it from terror attacks and fire.

But this was as explosive as it got.

During the hearing, Prof Crow, a bespectacled father-of-three, who is reportedly being paid 350 a day, revealed that he was born in West Ham, London and that he was a stickler for time-keeping.

Seven years ago, he was at the centre of controversy after he chaired another expert panel which told the government that 1.1m new homes would need to be built in the South East of England.

But on Wednesday, any indication that he found the start of the super-casino hearings the least bit worrying, was completely absent.

Perhaps he was thinking, as Denis Norden might have said: "It'll be Alright on the Night."


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