Mike Ashley calls for online tax to save the High Street

Joanna Estrada
December 4, 2018

"I'm not sitting in my office stroking a white cat", he told MPs on the housing, communities and local government select committee.

In comments that will do little to dispel speculation that the billionaire founder of Sports Direct wants eventually to merge House of Fraser with Debenhams, he said that the latter was struggling because of the weight of its rent bill.

Speaking after the meeting, Ashley said he still hoped to save about 80% of House of Fraser's stores - all but 12 - but it was "getting tougher" to do so. It's not the high street's fault it's dying, we all know the answer: it's the internet, the internet is killing the high street and I would know.

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".

In a sometimes bad-tempered appearance before MPs who are investigating how to support the future of the high street, Ashley said the only way to keep physical stores trading was by helping - or forcing - retailers to do so.

'Could we save the vast minority. what could we do for them?'

In just one hour, he managed to discuss Father Christmas, whether or not he is god, the perils of accounting and - oh yes- the topic he was actually brought there to talk about, the high street.

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.

"Mike thought that wouldn't achieve anything, so instead he demanded to go along in person for a full hour", they said.

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

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

He also hinted a long-suggested tie-up between Debenhams and House of Fraser could still be on the cards. He said mainstream retailers would only consider entering some high streets with significant financial incentives to do so.

Mr Ashley has recently been embroiled in public rows with retail landlords, but he said that all parties must now come to the table to save the high street.

'Everybody has to come together and look at this, ' he said.

Other reports by Click Lancashire

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