‘We must stop proliferation of US-style candy stores'

Friday, 17th June — By Tom Foot


Part of the haul of more than 2,000 fake chocolate bars

MORE than 2,000 fake “Wonka” chocolate bars have been seized by the city council during a crackdown on US-style candy shops.

Details of the bust on a row of stores in prestigious Oxford Street units on Monday were made public yesterday (Thursday).

It is part of an investigation into 30 shops in the West End the council say are “far from regular” businesses and may be dodging millions of pounds in rates among other unlawful activity.

Westminster City Hall has written to freeholders urging them to “consider the impact of US sweet shops on Oxford Street”.

Council leader Adam Hug said: “Anyone walking down Oxford Street is struck by the ever-expanding number of US-style sweet shops and poor quality souvenir outlets.

“They are not only an eyesore they are a threat to the status and value of what is supposed to be the nation’s premier shopping street.

“The problem is that owners of buildings are turning a blind-eye to those who sub-let them as it means they are not liable for business rates.

“That’s why we have a rash of US candy stores in prestigious locations.

“This needs to stop and we will be stepping up pressure on landlords to make it clear they are responsible for Oxford Street being over-run with these kinds of stores. The people selling overpriced and often out-of-date sweets are cheating the UK taxpayer and very often swindling their customers into the bargain.”

The Labour group said after it was elected in a shock victory over the Conservatives in May that it would move the council’s focus away from the West End to more neglected parts of north Westminster.

Also seized during the raids were sex novelty sweets, out-of-date food, vapes, toys, chargers, watches, mobile phone products and “Snuz” baby sleep devices.

The haul included products that had not been authorised by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency.

Landlords have also been asked to allow pop-ups to open up in voids in Oxford Street as part of a scheme that offers 70 per cent reduction on business rates.

The shops without customers

ONE of the great mysteries of the West End is how souvenir and tourist shops stay open for years in such prominent locations despite appearing to have so few customers.

Westminster City Council, while not pointing the finger at any specific business in Oxford Street, explained this week how a business rate dodge system might work.

They added that enforcement officers were often frustrated by a complex system of leases, sub-leases and licences.

Freeholders normally have to pay business rates on an empty store.

To avoid this they let to an intermediary who, in turn, lets to another operator “on a minimal rent while employing staff on minimal salaries”.

The local authority has to hold the current occupier liable for the rates but they often “avoid business rates by providing false occupation details/shell company names that quickly dissolve”.

The city council tries to recover the debt using bailiffs and insolvency action but often, it says, the “false information and dissolution of shell companies is preventing some of our action”.

“When we do obtain evidence of the real occupier, we seek to wind up the relevant companies”, the council said.

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