Friday 4 December 2020 6:19 am

Supermarket heavyweights the Co-op and Waitrose face mounting pressure to return business rates relief

High street titans the Co-op Group and Waitrose are facing mounting pressure to follow their peers and hand back millions of pounds of business rates relief dished out to keep the companies afloat during the pandemic.

The Co-op is facing growing disquiet from members after refusing to emulate rivals Tesco, Morrisons, Asda, Sainsbury’s and Aldi, who have all pledged to return cash waivers given to them in the midst of the coronavirus crisis.

Various individuals on  Co-op’s National Members Council are pressing for the group’s board to make an immediate pledge to waive the £70m government windfall, Sky News reported.

Sources said a £150m lump sum generated from the Co-op’s insurance arm, as well as the group’s decision to plug cash into a new entertainment arena in Manchester, mean the group now faces “a battle for its reputation within the group”. 

But the Co-op has argued that costs incurred by the company’s funeral care operations during the pandemic, and its commitment to pay the National Living Wage from next year, have hammered the group’s finances. 

A Co-op spokesperson said: “The Co-op response to helping to feed and care for the nation during COVID has been outstanding, and we are immensely proud of what our colleagues have achieved.

Waitrose and John Lews

Meanwhile, Waitrose owner John Lewis today said it will not repay business rates relief, adding that government support remains “crucial” as it navigates the crisis. 

The employee-owned group said the outlook remained “incredibly uncertain”.

“We are incredibly grateful for this vital support because we have lost significant sales while our John Lewis shops have been closed, and have invested heavily to keep our partners and customers safe,” the partnership said.

“We’re a business owned by our employees – our partners, not external shareholders – and we don’t intend to pay a bonus this year. Whenever we make any money, it is invested in our partners, our business and charitable giving.”

The government introduced the 12-month business rates holiday in March amid concerns the pandemic would strain retailers’ finances and threaten their ability to feed the country. 

But news that the UK will start the rollout of Pfier’s vaccine from next week has buoyed hopes of a return to normality in the near-future.

Between them, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons, Asda and Aldi  will hand back around £1.7bn in taxpayer-backed funding.

Asda president and chief executive Roger Burnley said: “Throughout the pandemic we have always sought to do the right thing – fulfilling our role in feeding the nation, protecting our colleagues and supporting our communities.

“But, as the hope of a vaccine and a more ‘normal’ life returning in 2021 grows, we have confidence that we are in a strong position to again do the right thing for the communities we serve.