Retailers have broadly welcomed the two main political parties’ new strategies for saving the high street, with action on ATMs, business rates and a digital services tax among the proposals capturing imaginations.
At the Conservative party conference this week chancellor Phillip Hammond gave his vision for a digital services tax to ensure global internet giants “contribute fairly to funding our public services”.
At its conference last week Labour pledged to ban ATM charges, commit to a fundamental review of the business rates system, introduce annual rate revaluations, and stop bank branch closures under a five-point emergency high street plan.
Budgens retailer David Knight, who owns two Budgens stores, welcomed Labour’s ATM proposals. “We’ve had a spat with [operator] Cardtronics who have put a £1.95 charge on our ATM, after we served notice on our five-year contract. They’d said they needed to introduce a charge, even though usage had gone up following three bank closures on the high street.
“However, although I’d welcome Labour’s proposal, the whole system isn’t viable due to Link’s cuts in interchange fees. It might work with me, but not at every site.”
Ketul Desai, owner of the General Store, Tufnell Park, London, added: “A ban on ATM charges would be a very positive and popular move. I have a free ATM in my store but earlier this year Cashzone wanted me to start charging for usage.
“I refused to do this as I knew what a detrimental impact it would have. I just don’t see how you can justify asking people to pay to take their money out. Instead I agreed to take the hit by lowering my commission by around half as a way of keeping it free for people to use.”
Norfolk retailer Nigel Dowdney welcomed Labour’s plans on bank closures and business rates, but questioned how they would fund them. “There used to be four banks in Stalham and in the past two years all have closed. It’s had a massive impact on footfall in the town.
“Our business rates are ridiculous, especially compared with online retailers such as Amazon. It needs reform. At the moment there’s no reality to the way they value my business, so annual revaluations would be welcome. But I don’t know how they’d pay for any of it.”
Somerset Spar retailer Mark Canniford said he would “really welcome” Hammond’s plan for a tax for the likes of Amazon “to pay for a fairer retailer environment”.
“The government needs to find more revenue. If Amazon and the likes will not pay their fair share of tax hit them at source,” he added. ”They hugely benefit from the UK without paying their share.”
British Retail Consortium chief executive Helen Dickinson added: “We note the chancellor’s intention to levy some form of services tax on internet companies and we are pleased he hasn’t been tempted to propose an online sales tax which would be an additional burden on retailers many of whom have online as well as physical stores.”
Association of Convenience Stores chief executive James Lowman said: “We welcome the chancellor’s comments on finding a way to address the balance between bricks and mortar and online retailers, as this is an area that we’ve looked at in our submission ahead of the Budget on October 29.
“We believe that the business rates system should introduce a new methodology for online warehouses so that they pay their fair share, with the revenue raised being used to subsidise rate reliefs on high streets.”
High street proposals in detail
The government has asked President Obama’s former chief economist Jason Furman to lead an expert panel to review the UK’s competition regime to ensure it is fit for the digital era.
Chancellor Phillip Hammond said: “If we cannot reach [international] agreement, the UK will go it alone with a digital services tax of its own.”
Labour’s high street plans also include a commitment to stopping post office closures, introducing free public wi-fi in town centres, giving free bus travel to under-25s, and setting up a register of landlords of empty shops.