By Bruce Robinson
Casino capitalism is coming to Manchester! The government plan to use the licensing of large scale gambling as a means of urban regeneration. Manchester, the surprise location for the first "super-casino", is frankly referred to by the chair of the independent Casino Advisory Panel as "a good place to test the social impact" of large casinos or, as the Manchester Evening News put it, "a better guinea pig" than the alternatives of Blackpool or the Dome.
East Manchester, the proposed location for the casino, has been decaying at least since the last of the old industries closed in the 80s. Promised benefits from investment from the Commonwealth Games and a few new mixed-ownership developments on the edges of the area have failed to reverse the situation. Now the casino is being offered as a solution to the problem of urban decay.
Many local people have welcomed the prospect of 2,770 promised jobs. But, while there may be a small number of high paid, permanent jobs, many will either be temporary (as with the construction) or low-paid, as is usually the case in the leisure industries. There may also be a swimming pool, ice rink or restaurants, but all run for private profit.
According to the Daily Telegraph, council leader Richard Leese has now also said that bidders for the casino need not even locate it in East Manchester: "It is going to be an open tender process and operators can come forward with other sites. We will have to judge those on their merits."
The favourite to win the contract is Sol Kerzner, best known for building a leisure complex in one of the apartheid "homelands" to allow white South Africans to avoid the laws forbidding gambling and sex shows under the apartheid regime. Kerzner has apparently met government ministers 12 times and is also linked to Philip Anschutz, who entertained John Prescott in Texas.
There is little reason to believe that money generated by the casino will necessarily remain in the area. The appeal of gambling as an investment for capital is that, as long as the punters can be lured in, money just makes more money.
Money may flow into the area but there is nothing to stop it going straight out again. The initial investment in buildings and infrastructure are likely to be the only fixed investments that go into the area. There may also be a few new hotels or shops, but there is nothing to stop the gamblers shopping or staying elsewhere - and given the state of East Manchester it is likely they will prefer the city centre.
The government is blasé about the social problems that might arise from putting high-stakes gambling into a run-down, low-income area. A rise in gambling addiction is widely predicted and it will have an impact on the worst off, drawn in by the prospect of winning big money. Crime is expected to follow. There are worries about organised crime, local gangs, drugs and the impact on the youth of the area. One sceptical local worker put it graphically: "What kind of people is it going to bring in? You're going to get the yuppie-yah-yahs over there with all their money and the scroats from round here trying to part them from their winnings with a brick round the head. The kids here being shown what the have-gots have. There'll be drug dealers. God knows. It'll make it all much worse."
The casino as regenerator is only one particularly grotesque example of how the interests of capital have come to be the most important determinant of the nature of the cities in which we live. Cities bid against each other to attract capital by promising an attractive (read, profitable) environment in which to invest. Often some publicly owned assets - often land or the right to build on it - are added as sweeteners. Losers - here Blackpool and south east London - have no alternative way to raise money.
The social democratic belief of old-fashioned Labour right-wingers such as Herbert Morrison in London in public works and local government as a means to provide directly for the working class has disappeared as the Labour government and local councils have embraced neo-liberal market-oriented solutions, based on the idea that with a small push from the state the benefits of private investment can trickle down to the most deprived parts of society.
The results can be seen in Manchester where the city centre has plenty of posh shops and housing for the well off (some for the very rich), tenants in the south of the city are just voting on whether to hand council housing over to a housing association and, when the old council flats in Hulme were pulled down, they were largely replaced by private housing. Manchester also has some of the worst health statistics in the country while there are cuts in provision or freezes on recruitment of trained health workers.
It is not then that there is no alternative to the casino or that other needs of the local population have been met. Rather it is that Labour local and national government have abandoned any attempt to remake the city even along social democratic lines and are instead casting around for projects that will attract private capital.
Coincidentally, a few days before the casino decision I heard the Marxist geographer David Harvey speak on "Neo-liberalism and the city". Harvey has long argued that to avoid crisis and aid the circulation of capital, there is a need for the remaking of cities to absorb an excess of capital through investment in buildings and infrastructure. In this way, the dominance of financial capital under neo-liberalism has remade cities in the image best suited to capital's needs rather than the requirements of those who live in them.
He concluded his talk by saying: "We are not making the city after our heart's desire. We live in cities that are being remade to absorb the capital surplus. Unless we confront that issue head on by saying that is not going to drive the system any more, we are doomed to live in cities that are made and remade again and again around this dynamic."
The transformation of Manchester in the last 10 years has occurred without much of a challenge to the way the city has been refashioned in this way. The super-casino project is merely the latest way of doing it - and one which shows most transparently what is going on.