Conservative MP Ian Liddell-Grainger said reports that Chancellor Rishi Sunak was considering a new tax on goods sold online to help bricks-and-mortar retailers to compete would come as alarming news to thousands of rural families. And, he said, the Government should realise that coronavirus had brought a step change in the UK’s shopping habits – and accept that it was permanent, rather than trying to reverse it. The surge in online sales and home deliveries during lockdown has been followed by a very slow return to anything like normal trading in Britain’s high streets. It has also brought an upsurge in complaints from traditional retailers that business rates impose an unfair burden on them and give online sellers an unfair competitive advantage.
But Mr Liddell-Grainger, Conservative MP for Bridgwater and West Somerset, said the Government would be making a huge mistake if it tried to rebalance the situation through taxation. “What thousands of country people have discovered during lockdown is that it is far more convenient to shop online – and the wider benefits have been clear for all to see,” he said.
“There have been far fewer polluting car journeys and hence better air quality and much less congestion both on roads and in town centres. What’s there to argue about?
“The increase in online shopping has been a levelling-up exercise for many thousands of country-dwellers who previously were paying a rural premium on their shopping because of the travelling costs. To introduce a tax which would effectively dissuade them from continuing the online habit and force them back into their cars and onto the roads would be utterly pointless.
Neither should we forget that many of those companies which have experienced a meteoric rise in online orders have a high street presence as well, so for them it’s essentially been a swings and roundabouts experience.”
Mr Liddell-Grainger said lockdown had only accentuated a process of decline which had been affecting traditional high streets for years.
“Local authorities have been instrumental in this by encouraging and allowing out-of-town shopping centres and the net – if unwelcome – effect of this is that many town centres are now over-shopped,” he said. “Rather than trying to tinker around with this through tax the Government should accept that we are witnessing a trend that is going to lead to permanent change.
The way forward is to turn some of those shops which years ago were converted from living accommodation back into homes and concentrate retailing in out-of-town centres. “Leaving town centres to host restaurants, pubs and cafes as well as outlets such as hair salons would transform them utterly from today’s dismal prospect of half-deserted department stores – and with more people living there they would be far more lively, dynamic places in the evenings rather than the soulless, near-deserted zones they currently become once the shops have closed.”