Stratford’s new casino echoes Greenwich’s failed gamble

The doors fling open today on Stratford City’s newest attraction, a huge casino within the shiny shopping centre next to the Olympic Park. Aspers Stratford City will be the UK’s biggest, with 40 gaming tables, a 150-seat poker room, 150 slot machines and 92 electronic gaming terminals. Here’s a surprise – the Evening Standard fawning over the rich man who owns it.

If Greenwich Council and one of the world’s richest businessmen had their way, though, all this – and more – would already be up and running inside the Dome. A casino was a central part of the business plan for what became the O2 – and the failure of that plan is still being felt nearly five years on.

Here’s the entrance to the O2 arena, seen last week during the ATP tennis finals. The big “Sky Backstage” hoarding marks the space where the casino would have been. The plan was to build a “regional casino” (or “super casino”) here, which could play host to up to 1,250 slot machines. The casino plans were part of the Tony Blair government’s liberalisation of gambling laws. Originally, eight were to have been built nationwide, but this was whittled down to just the one.

Local councils were invited to bid to play host to super casinos, and Greenwich was among eight shortlisted. The only other London bidder, Brent Council, had Wembley Stadium in mind, but pulled out at the final stage. But Newham Council was bidding for something smaller – a “large casino”, of up to 150 slot machines.

Greenwich’s bid was controversial and deeply divisive – a foretaste of the rows to come over the Olympics in Greenwich Park. A campaign group, South East London Against The Casino, was formed, claiming three-quarters of locals were against and it would bring crime and local youngsters into gambling. A report commissioned by PriceWaterhouse Coopers for the council – which it initially refused to make public – said “close proximity to casinos increases the prevalence of problem gambling”.

It wasn’t just Greenwich Council that wanted the super-casino, though. Then-mayor Ken Livingstone, the Greenwich Society and the local chamber of commerce, were all for it, claiming it would help regenerate the area. It had that look of a “done deal” that local cynics have grown used to – not least when it emerged deputy prime minister John Prescott had stayed at the Colorado ranch of Philip Anschutz, the billionaire behind Dome owners AEG. Another scandal erupted when AEG were caught out claiming local religious groups were behind the casino – they most certainly weren’t.

With claims that the council and AEG – never mind senior national politicians – had far too close a relationship, the whole thing was causing an unholy stink. The much-missed Greenwich Watch’s archive of stories – including its exclusive on the “faked” support from local churches – on it is well worth reading.

But the bid continued, and by January 2007, it was widely believed the casino would go to either Greenwich or Blackpool. Neither got it – the bid was won by Manchester, which planned to build it at Eastlands, home of Manchester City’s stadium. It was never built, though – Gordon Brown cancelled the scheme after becoming prime minister.

Over the water, things were more successful. Newham won its bid for a “large casino”, and that’s the same one that opens today at Stratford City, a short hop on the Tube from North Greenwich.

So, five years on, what are we left with? That big gap inside the O2 and a gaming college at The Valley are the legacy of Greenwich’s little flutter on having a casino. There was a section buried deep in the council’s website devoted to Freedom of Information requests about the scheme and the associated PwC report, although that vanished in the recent revamp of the site.

The failure still echoes around the O2, though. Before 2007, AEG planned two hotels for the Dome site, with dreams of turning the tip of the Peninsula into what seemed like a mini-Las Vegas. At the end of 2011, work has yet to begin on the one hotel given planning permission earlier this year.

While the O2 arena itself has been an undoubted success, the “entertainment avenue” next to it hasn’t been such a hot destination. Film premieres on the windy peninsula have been few and far between. Years of Jubilee Line disruptions have dented its appeal to the rest of London. Despite being on a clutch of bus routes, this collection of suburban chain bars and eateries under a mucky roof remains difficult to reach from the suburbs without a car. It’s recently gained a private members’ club but apart from after-show parties, why on earth would anyone want to join an exclusive venue there?

To be fair, it is busy at weekends, but has the unwanted prize of the highest concentration of alcohol-related crime in Greenwich borough.

It all feels a bit like a highly-fortified Bluewater but without the shops. But AEG is now planning to fix that – by turning the casino space into a shopping centre. Early papers submitted to Greenwich planners propose a “retail outlet village” inside the O2, stretching around the southern side of the Dome. Could it work as a shopping centre? Well, the Westfield Stratford City horse has bolted, and Canary Wharf’s malls have steadily built up over the years. But some shops would provide a reason to linger in the Dome, and maybe get a bite to eat too. Full details will no doubt hit the Greenwich planning desk soon.

But until the rest of the peninsula is built up – and that’s more than a decade off yet – it’s unlikely a shopping centre will bring the windfall for AEG – and possibly further investment in the area – that a casino could have done. Then again, considering the amount of alcohol-related crime there, perhaps we dodged a bullet by not having a mini-Vegas by the Blackwall Tunnel. Whatever your view, the O2 casino is one of the great local “what ifs” of our time.


  1. Can’t help but think we missed out there, despite what I admit is/was majority opposition to it.

    I really do’t think the residents of the Peninsular, Charlton and Westcombe Park would have been cowering in their homes attempting to avoid crazed gamblers out to mug everyone to feed their addiction.

    As is often the case, the opponents never came up with a viable alternative.

    So we’re left with, er, a big billboard instead of a revenue-raising asset for the area providing loads of jobs.

    Let the flaming begin!

  2. Good post, as always Darryl, but the Dome is The O2 nowadays and has been for four years. I know it’s branding but aren’t most things? Do you still travel on British Rail or get a phone line from the GPO? Do you refuse to use the word Snickers and stick with the previous branding of Marathon? Why’s the original branding of the O2 so much more appealing than its current name? Just interested…

  3. If they want me to advertise their telephone service, they can pay me. Or at least provide me with a service that works…

  4. Wolfe – Have you ever heard anybody call the Eye by it’s full name? Ie The EDF Energy London Eye. If they changed Trafalgar Square to Vodafone Square would you use it’s old name or the new? I prefer to think of The O2 as a dome and therefore calling it the dome is fine by me.

  5. And, “the Dome” is both descriptive and unique – “the O2” could be Shepherd’s Bush, Hammersmith, Glasgow, Dublin …

  6. Chris, I completely agree with you.

    There’s a sizeable casino in Leicester Square but if you encounter any problems in that area, I will place a handsome wager it didn’t involve a casino regular.

    Furthermore, I’ve been to Las Vegas a few times and even among those giant magnets for our money, I never encountered a single desperate red-eyed addict searching for just a few more coins for the slots.

    Las Vegas also draws in billions of dollars a year from holiday-makers around the world, including millions of Europeans who have made the ten-hour flight to enjoy the city. If people could just ignore the inaccurate and uninformed doom-laden bombast from the anti-gambling community, we could have started feeding a slice of that European demand, creating a great many jobs and earning a sizeable income.

    A tragically missed opportunity.

  7. … And I could never understand why they didn’t name the tube station “Dome” (as in Bank for example). Greenwich North is sort of nothing, really.

  8. Next summer for 6 weeks only it will change it’s name again to the North Greenwich Arena, thanks to LOCOG’s draconian advertising rules (as O2 is not an offical Olympic sponsor). Regardless of your position on branding if O2, Sky, Adidas, BMW and all the other sponsors of The O2 Arena did not invest, it would not be the world class venue with world class sport and music acts that it is now. The addition of a casino of the size they now have in Stratford would have had no significant negative impact and would only have been an extra source of revenue and employment. As of next year you’ll also be able to board the Emirates Air Line (cable car) from Emirates Greenwich Peninsula to Emirates Royal Docks. Who knows, Greenwich Park presented by Mr Muscle could be next…

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