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Business Comment

James Moore: SuperGroup's solution for business rates is likely to fall on deaf ears, too


Outlook SuperGroup is expanding superfast but it would like to grow even faster, and that should be good for us because it would create jobs and stimulate the economy.

Unfortunately, the retailer has a problem. It's called business rates. Same old, same old, you might think. Just another wealthy business whinging about tax it doesn't want to pay. Hey, everyone's getting squeezed. That would be a shade unfair to SuperGroup and its chief executive Julian Dunkerton, with whom I talked yesterday.

He's got a solution he says would enable him to get new shops into all sorts of places where the numbers don't add up right now, while still protecting the taxpayer. It is to calculate business rates as a percentage of the rent paid by a shop owner. This, incidentally, would still allow the usual reliefs and concessions to be offered the little guys that need them (they'd pay a lower percentage).

And it would solve the problem with the current system, which has lost any connection with the economic reality faced by would-be high street occupants. They are dealing with rising costs, financially constrained customers and intense competition from the internet. Rents have fallen in many places in recognition of this. Business rates – based on an open-market rentable value as at April 2008 – remain stubbornly high so the premises available on too many high streets are uneconomic.

The British Retail Consortium is working on ideas of its own with EY but until now the Government has turned a tin ear. It is unlikely Mr Dunkerton will do much better.

So high streets will continue to decay, comprising only bookies (although they too are starting to close), charity outlets and boarded-up shopfronts.

Don't cry for Mr Dunkerton. He's doing just fine, with sales up a fifth and the shares climbing. With a burgeoning overseas business, and various celebs photographed draped in his SuperDry label, prospects are bright. Plenty of high streets need him more than he needs them.

Meanwhile, we've had a gimmick from the Coalition – its 12 Portas Pilot towns receiving money for a spruce-up. And a gimmick from Labour, with its pledge to cut business rates by reversing a cut in corporation tax, thus robbing Peter to pay Paul.

As other, less successful, retailers give up the fight, politicians wonder why they don't get any respect. And why the young, and the not so young, wearing Superdry hoodies listen to people who deride them.