The boss of Westminster City Council has called for “greater transparency” about who operates in the city as it looks to crack down on the business owners behind illicit American Candy stores which litter Oxford Street, with the chief urging for more progress from central government to tackle the issue.
Cllr Adam Hug told members of a council meeting on Wednesday that the West End and wider London needs “greater help” to go after the people who sit behind these entities, which now account for more than £9m of unpaid business rates.
Hug said: “As the economic crime bill passes through parliament there is a strong pro-business argument for greater corporate transparency and accountability to make sure that businesses have the opportunity to thrive.”
He also noted that there must be “tools given” to enforcement agencies to help tackle [businesses] who are “acting poorly”.
Hug said the council will look to deepen its engagement with HMRC and the National Crime Agency to bring a halt to the stores and assured he is making progress with landlords on Oxford street who let to the businesses.
“Everyone is letting the side down if you let a candy store into your property,” he said, describing their boom as a symptom of a “deeper problem” in the UK economy.
Westminster has long called for an end to trade for the candy stores which have become a brutal eyesore in the capital’s most popular shopping district since the pandemic when desperate landlords needed to fill up vacant lots.
In the last 15 months the council has recovered £1m-worth of items that were deemed either fake or potentially dangerous – this included disposable vape pens which “contained excessive levels of nicotine”.
However some 27 ‘candy stores’ are still in operation.
Speaking to City A.M in March, Hug said that taking down these sites would be a “sophisticated operation” and owners of these stores are “skilled at exploiting UK legal loopholes”.
Westminster City Council has also slammed lack of governance around setting up companies such as the candy stores in the UK with only “cursory checks on who the directors are”.
The council has previously said that it is harder to get a local authority library lending card than to register a company at Companies House.
“We are backing progressive planning and licensing policies that will enable the continued recovery of the West End,” Dee Corsi, chief executive of New West End Company, which oversees operations across Oxford Street, told City A.M.
“Retail space on Oxford Street occupied by candy shops is now down to less than two percent, with major brands such as Footasylum, HMV and The Fragrance Shop all announcing their return in recent weeks.
She added: “Candy stores are a symptom of high rates and hard to lease space, exacerbated by the pandemic, so with business rates having fallen by 30-40 per cent, and redevelopment and renewal well on course across the district, we are confident of an accelerated recovery.”