TWO towns are locked in a race to be the casino capital of North Yorkshire offering gamblers 150 slot machines.

Representatives of Harrogate and Scarborough borough councils have told the Government they are keen to secure one of a limited number of licences for a large casino.

The two are among 30 authorities to submit an expression of interest to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).

All 30 are competing for eight licences for a "large" casino, with up to 150 gaming machines, or a further eight licences for a "small casino, with a maximum of 80 machines.

But it is likely only one of Harrogate and Scarborough will succeed, because the Government is insisting on a "good geographical spread".

Both types of casino will be able to invite a major bookmaker to set up inside - an added attraction outlawed in present casinos. The larger facilities can also operate bingo games. However, the maximum jackpot offered by the slot machines will remain £4,000.

Both councils said no sites had been identified and that their interest did not mean a full application would be submitted before the deadline of March 31.

Harrogate chief executive Mick Walsh said the town had pursued building a larger casino a decade ago, before the incoming Labour government dropped those proposals in 1997.

Mr Walsh said: "There was not much opposition then to the idea of a casino in principle, although one or two church groups were not keen.

"But we don't know yet whether we have the support of the council, so we will be having discussions with the group."

Similarly, a Scarborough council spokeswoman said: "We are purely keeping our options open. A report will go to members shortly to see whether we want to pursue it seriously."

Scarborough is also interested - as are Middlesbrough, Sunderland and Newcastle - in securing the single licence for a regional casino, offering unlimited jackpots.

But that licence is likely to go to either London or Blackpool, after a Commons revolt forced the Government to abandon plans for up to 40.

A DCMS spokesman said: "We have listed on our website the councils that have expressed an interest. It does not mean they are bound to apply."

An independent advisory panel will consider where the 17 casinos should be built.