Yorkshire business leaders react as research shows retail industry shed 57,000 jobs in a year

The "blatant unfairness" of differing tax demands expected of online and high street stores needs to be re-balanced, a Yorkshire MP has said, after experts found that around 57,000 retail jobs were lost last year in Britain.

Employment fell for the 16th consecutive quarter in the final few months of 2019, with more full-time than part-time job losses, the British Retail Consortium (BRC) said today.

The Shambles, a picturesque shopping street in York. Picture: Bruce Rollinson.

The Shambles, a picturesque shopping street in York. Picture: Bruce Rollinson.

The group reports that the continued transformation of the industry - the UK's largest private sector employer - along with other issues including Brexit and the general election, contributed.

It comes after the Yorkshire Post reported late last month that high streets in the region and northern England had more empty shops and fewer visitors compared with the rest of the country.

Sheffield South East MP for Labour Clive Betts, who co-authored a report on ailing high streets which was published last February, said that the downturn was part of a "decades-long" trend rather than just a year.

Almost two out of five employers in retail companies are also planning to hire fewer staff in the coming months, said the BRC.

Clive Betts. Picture: Chris Etchells.

Clive Betts. Picture: Chris Etchells.

Retailers will be cutting staff anyway following the so-called "golden quarter" covering the busy festive season, according to the group.

More than 20 per cent of all retail sales are Internet-based, according to Office for National Statistics released on Friday, and Mr Betts again called for taxation to be balanced so that online companies pay a greater share in a way that would not affect the pockets of consumers themselves.

Mr Betts and colleagues on the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, which he chaired, in February last year released a report called High streets and town centres in 2030.

It states that "retailers are paying more than their fair share of tax, while online retailers are not contributing enough".

-> What I would do to revive our struggling high streets and town centres in Yorkshire – Jayne Dowle

Committee members "heard that" Amazon UK’s business rates amounted to approximately 0.7 per cent of their UK turnover, while high street retailers are paying considerably more, with business rates as a proportion of turnover ranging from 1.5 per cent to 6.5 per cent, said that report.

Speaking to the Yorkshire Post, Mr Betts said that with growing online sales, the BRC research was "no surprise" and of the differences in tax, added: "It's a blatant unfairness."

In his report, members argued that revenue raised through such a move should support a reduction in business rates for retailers in high streets, a 12-month "holiday" for high street retailers from rates increases and increased available resources from the Future High Streets Fund.

-> Five Yorkshire towns to get share of £1bn high street rescue fund

Mike Cartwright​, a policy and representation executive at the West and North Yorkshire Chamber of Commerce, today said it is "widely acknowledged that the retail sector has been having a tough time of things for some time now".

He added: "Consumer trends will continue to change and adapt in the future, as online shopping tests the future profile of the high street. The retail sector will, we believe, still play an important part in the whole city centre and high street experience as long as it offers quality and good service.”

BRC chief executive Helen Dickinson said: "There were many challenges in 2019 - businesses had to contend with the repeated risk of no-deal Brexit, a general election and the ongoing transformation of the industry, leading to weak consumer demand.

"As a result, employment has suffered in retail, the UK's largest private sector employer.

"Retailers may be investing heavily in their workers, through training and apprenticeships, but more could be done."

She added that "it is worrying that the Government is standing by while tens of thousands of jobs are being lost.

"If the same was true in manufacturing or aviation, one can be sure that the Government would act."

On average, 12.5 per cent of shops in the North and Yorkshire have been vacant since 2011, compared with 10 per cent in the UK as a whole, while footfall has also been dropping at a steeper rate.

According to Springboard, a provider of data and intelligence on customer activity, the figures are part of a long-term trend of decline in visitors to the high street driven by the “digitisation of society”.

A Government spokesman said: “We recognise retail has had a challenging year and continue to work with the sector to identify pressures and steps to address them.

"This includes the delivery of the £1 billion Future High Streets Fund to support local areas in England to renew high streets and our review into business rates, as well as cutting business rates for small retailers by a third this year.”

An Amazon UK spokesperson said: “We are investing heavily in creating jobs and infrastructure across the UK – more than £18bn since 2010.

"This investment helped contribute to a total tax contribution of £793m during 2018 – £220m in direct taxes and £573m in indirect taxes.”

The company has also been working with Enterprise Nation, a small business support network which represents more than 90,000 SMEs, to open five 'Clicks and Mortar' pop-up shops, the most recent of which is in Leeds.