“Business rates ‘to blame for high street decline’ “

“The boss of Tesco has warned that if the government does not reform business rates soon it will have contributed to the decline of high streets across Britain.

Dave Lewis, chief executive of the country’s largest supermarkets group, said: “A decision not to reform business rates by the government will be a statement of policy.

“It will be a deliberate decision not to support the retail industry. We believe businesses should pay taxes, as it is the responsible thing to do, but should the government be laying a heavier burden on a shrinking industry?” He said that the government was in danger of “overmilking” the retail industry through “completely disproportionate” and excessively high business rates and risked damaging the sector.

Business rates — a tax linked to the value of property that a business occupies — have become an increasingly fractious issue in the retail industry as traditional bricks-and-mortar operators labour under a tax burden not shared by online-only rivals.

Tesco’s rates bill is almost £700 million. The total annual business rates tax take for the Treasury is £30 billion. Mr Lewis said that while corporation tax had fallen [from 28 per cent to 19 per cent since 2010], inflation-linked business rates, which hit the retail sector harder than any other, had increased.

“Business rates have gone up while corporation tax has gone down very significantly and that is very different to everywhere else. The UK has the second highest property-based tax in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development at 4.5 per cent [of the total tax take]: it is only 1 per cent in France and Germany,” he said. “The approach of most of the countries in the OECD is to tax businesses on their profitability and to help businesses with investment, but business rates is a tax on any investment I make in my stores.”

Mr Lewis, who is in the middle of implementing a turnaround at Tesco, said in 2015 that retailers faced a “lethal cocktail” of rising taxes and costs at a time of falling profits. Yesterday he said that distress on the high street, where House of Fraser recently failed, showed his prediction was coming true.

Although the Treasury has made some revisions to business rates to ease pressure, Mr Lewis said that it had tinkered around the edges, despite the fact that British retailers made a huge contribution to the economy by generating employment and wider consumer spending, particularly in rural areas “where there might not be much else going on”. A recent study by KPMG estimated Tesco that contributed £37.3 billion in gross value added to the economy, a third of the construction sector’s total GVA in 2016.

There are growing calls for a tax on sales generated by online-only retailers. Mr Lewis said that if retailers were struggling to pay rates because their sales had fallen, “you need to look at where those sales have gone and if they are being taxed in the same way”. He said that a tax on online sales without a reform of business rates would result in a “double whammy” for retailers with stores and online divisions.”

Source: The Times (pay wall)