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.