Every Christmas needs a pantomime villain. For many in the north east, every Christmas, that’s Mike Ashley. But whatever you make of him, his evidence to the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee demands attention.
When the Committee asked for a representative from House of Fraser, they perhaps were not expecting Mr Ashley himself, and it’s fair to say that they were somewhat bamboozled by his performance. Normally used to gently grilling polite lawyers and housing experts, here was someone who is, to put it lightly, not afraid to speak their mind. He was prickly at times, and showed his impatience when MPs ambushed him on House of Fraser’s plans to reimburse let down customers rather than asking him about the high street. When Clive Betts MP, committee chair, decided it was time to ‘move on’, Ashley responded, ‘that suits you to move on now, does it?’.
Once they did get around to the high street, Ashley offered some insightful and pithy remarks and, more importantly, some solutions. In typical fashion, he told the ‘High streets and town centres in 2030’ inquiry that if we carry on as we are, the high street will simply not survive until 2030. His core proposition was a tax on retailers that take more than 20% of their revenue online. Acknowledging that Sports Direct would not thank him, he argued that avoiding such a tax would be enough incentive for retailers to maintain or even increase their presence on the high street.
There is perhaps a slight contradiction in arguing on one hand that retail centric high streets are dead, whilst on the other arguing that the answer lies in encouraging retailers to stay there – a position which will surely be untenable if preference for online continues to grow, online tax or none. But for a retailer with both offline and online interests to call for such a tax was a significant moment – turkeys apparently do vote for Christmas.
Ashley’s comments on councils stood out. Often underestimated by large corporates, he was passionate and forceful on the role local authorities are playing and will play in shaping the high streets of the future. Bath and North East Somerset Council came in for particular praise for being flexible and creative in allowing retailers to use unnecessary floor space in different ways. But despite Ashley’s warnings, his recent dealings indicate that he does see a future, a profitable future, in the high street. And despite what some may think of his business practices, his call for radical action should be heeded by our politicians to ensure that future is realised. Local leadership is critical.