Monday 3 December 2018 7:39 pm

Mike Ashley calls for online sales tax to revive high street

Sports Direct billionaire Mike Ashley has urged the government to tax online retailers as he put up a spirited defence of his own retail operation in front of MPs today.

In a fiery appearance in front of a parliamentary committee the retail tycoon said “web boys” that make over 20 per cent of their retail revenue online should be taxed to help resuscitate traditional high street shopping.

Ashley, who acquired struggling department store House of Fraser, said his proposal would motivate retailers to drive the majority of their businesses through physical stores to avoid the tax.

The Newcastle United owner set the tone for a colourful select committee appearance, bristling at probing questions about his takeover of the department store chain.

In a heated exchange Ashley accused the MPs of “showboating” and defended his efforts to keep as many stores open as possible.

He told a parliamentary committee looking at the future of the high street that if he managed to keep 80 per cent of the stores open "that might be a God-like performance." He added: "Before anybody says it, I'm not comparing myself to God."

He went on to point out that he "isn't Father Christmas" either and refused to guarantee jobs at House of Fraser, saying retailers would have to change fundamentally if they want to survive.

Ashley’s Sports Direct bought House of Fraser out of administration in August for £90m. The retail billionaire pledged to save 80 per cent of the department store’s branches, but has slammed “greedy” landlords for failing to accept new rental terms.

Ashley used today's platform in Westminster to paint a grim portrait of the state of UK retailing, blaming the rise in internet shopping for retailers’ woes.

“The vast majority of the high street has already died,” he said. “In the bottom of the swimming pool, dead.”

“The high street won’t make 2030,” he added. “It won’t be there unless you do something really radical and grab the bull by the horns.”

Ashley, who has clashed with MPs before over conditions at Sports Direct warehouses, said he refused to be painted as a “pantomime villain” for his actions at the company and restated his intention to make House of Fraser the “Harrods of the high street”.

In addition to an online sales tax, Ashley called on local councils and landlords to help revive the British high street.

Ashley said free business rates for five years, a 50 per cent reduction in base rent rates and free car parking for customers could all be crucial in saving brick and mortar stores.

Robert Hayton, head of UK business rates at Altus Group, backed the retail mogul's call for an online sales tax, saying: "It is vital that the government develops a coherent approach to taxing the digital economy."

The Sports Direct tycoon appeared in front of the committee after slamming politicians for not doing enough to save high street retailers.

He also blasted the government's policy of providing £900m of business rates relief for small businesses, describing the move as “the work of a child”.

A Treasury spokesperson said: “As the chancellor made clear in the Budget, an online sales tax would be passed onto consumers.

“That’s why we’re putting £675m into a Future High Streets Fund instead to help high streets to evolve.”