Mike Ashley calls for online tax to save the High Street


Mike Ashley has called for a new tax on revenues from online retailing to help revive ailing town centres.

Appearing before MPs, the Sports Direct founder said any retailer that makes more than 20% of its sales online should be subject to an additional tax as the “internet is killing the High Street”.

Ashley said a tax would hit his own £400m online operation, but give retailers a reason to keep stores open.

All parties, including landlords and the government bodies responsible for setting business rates, had to play a part in helping to save the High Street, he argued.

He said this would encourage businesses like Sports Direct to open more stores rather than increasingly shifting to digital sales channels.

“It’s not House of Fraser’s fault, it’s not Marks & Spencer’s fault, it’s not Debenhams’s fault the high street is dying,” Mr Ashley said.

“The internet is killing the high street.”

Earlier this year Sports Direct bought House of Fraser for £90m after the department store chain collapsed into administration.

Many such stores were stuck with “prehistoric rents” set before the rise of online shopping, Mr Ashley said. That meant landlords “have to take their share of the pain“, he argued.

In combative exchanges with MPs, the “tracksuit tycoon” said some buildings now had more value for purposes other than retailing.

However, most landlords wanted to “sit down and work something out”, Mr Ashley said, adding: “I’m not Father Christmas – I try and be fair and I try and be balanced”.

Given the obstacles facing the retail sector, managing to keep 80% of House of Fraser stores open would be a “god-like performance”, he said.

That meant he could not guarantee all House of Fraser workers would keep their jobs. “It doesn’t make sense… the High Street has to change what it offers the consumers.”

Mr Ashley has vowed to make the chain the “Harrods of the High Street” and take it more upmarket.

The businessman, who has expanded his high street empire this year with the acquisitions of House of Fraser and Evans Cycles, warned most high streets will not survive until 2030.

He said: “I want to make it crystal clear: the mainstream high street as we think about it today – not the Oxford Streets and the Westfields – are already dead. They can’t survive.”

He later said: “Outside of London it’s going to be a ghost town.”

Mr Ashley also suggested local government should offer free parking in town centres and reform business rates.

Quizzed by members of the Housing and Local Government Select Committee on the future of House of Fraser, Mr Ashley said nobody would be able to keep all 59 of the department store’s branches open “except God”.

He also hinted a long-suggested tie-up between Debenhams and House of Fraser could still be on the cards.