PLANS for a huge new casino in Southampton, which took a major step forward this week, have been criticised as the “wrong decision” for the city.

Critics say the £50,000 annually pledged by newly appointed operator, Aspers, to tackle gambling issues is “tokenism” and have called on the company to ensure gamblers have support to stop them sinking into debt.

As previously reported, Aspers beat competition from four other firms to be named by the city council as the operator of the large casino, the last licence of its kind to be issued in the UK.

It will be built as part of the £450 million Royal Pier waterfront complex, if plans are given the nod by the city council this year.

The development will also contain 50 shops, 730 homes, offices, bars, restaurants, a four or five-star hotel and spa, arts and culture “hub” and an extended Mayflower Park with a 130ft Spitfire statue.

The casino plans have proven controversial with some since they first surfaced a decade ago.

Honorary city alderman Peter Baillie, who opposed the original proposals as a Conservative councillor in 2006, said: “I’m still of the absolutely firm view that while it is good news that 200 jobs are being created, they will be created out of hundreds and thousands of people in the city getting into debt that they can’t afford because they have gambled it away.

“This is not what the city needs for its cohesion. I think ultimately it’s the wrong decision for the city.”

He also said the money pledged by Aspers to the city council for problem gambling initiatives was “tokenism” and a “drop in the ocean”, saying the council spends far more every year tackling alcohol and drug addiction.

“We are creating something which we know will have a big cost down the line, whether it’s on the NHS or social services”, he added.

Paul Webber, minister at Above Bar Church, said: “The sad reality is that many people don’t improve their life by gambling if they win – it’s a lure that doesn’t satisfy.

“They can be landed with severe debt and addiction.”

He said he wants Aspers to advertise gambling addiction support initiatives, such as Christians Against Poverty which has a free helpline, and said the £50,000 pledged by Aspers towards the initiative “doesn’t really scratch the surface”.

Aspers says it has set up Community Action for Responsible Gaming groups in all of the cities it operates in.

The initiatives bring together groups to discuss local gambling issues and see if action needs to be taken.

The city council said proposals to deal with problem gambling issues were a key criteria all of the candidates were judged on, with licensing committee chairman Matt Tucker saying Aspers also scored highly on regenerating the waterfront and benefitting “generation, new jobs and improving the economic prospects of the city as a whole”.