West End landlords ordered to evict US candy stores at center of tax avoidance probe

Oxford Street landlords have been told to ‘up their game’ to force American-style candy stores at the center of a tax avoidance probe.

Westminster Council is currently investigating 30 American-style confectioneries which have taken up prime locations in the West End in recent years and are accused of commercial rate fraud. The council says the 30 stores have failed to pay £7.9m in tax, highlighting a situation where tenants have set up shell companies which quickly dissolve and make it difficult to collect debt using bailiffs or an insolvency action.

MP Nickie Aiken, who represents the cities of London and Westminster, told landlords to actively hunt tenants at the complaints centre, warning that more buyers were choosing to visit other London shopping centers above the West End.

She said: “There should be a lot more rigor in the way they check their tenants. Landlords need to take responsibility as Oxford Street looks less and less attractive at the moment.”

Ministers have considered a crackdown to force companies to be more transparent about filings, and Ms Aiken said she hoped this would be taken up by the next prime minister.

However, she said it was “not just about government legislation and landlords have a role to play as well.”

Ms Aiken added: ‘There is huge competition in Oxford Street from Stratford and Shepherd’s Bush [where the two Westfield shopping centres are located]so the owners of Oxford Street really need to up their game because if they want the traffic they need a better deal.”

Recent figures suggest footfall on Oxford Street is still down 30% from pre-pandemic levels, compared to a drop of around 14% across the retail sector as a whole.

Department stores on the iconic shopping street have closed since the start of the pandemic after struggling with falling footfall during the lockdowns, including Debenhams and House of Fraser.

Westminster Council is increasingly concerned about the proliferation of gap-filling American-style confectionery, with owners seeking to avoid paying professional tariffs on empty stores themselves. They rented the stores to intermediaries who then rented them to souvenir shops or confectioners. Earlier this year, Westminster Council leader Adam Hug called the shops “a threat to the status and value of what is supposed to be the country’s premier shopping street”. More recently, some confectioneries have started to turn into suitcase shops in an attempt to avoid closer scrutiny.

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