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Pets at Home and B&M join rush to hand COVID cash to government

Oscar Williams-Grut
·Senior City Correspondent, Yahoo Finance UK
·3-min read
Pets at Home, the animal and pet accessories retailer, received over £28m in business rates relief. Photo: Alessandra Tarantino/AP
Pets at Home, the animal and pet accessories retailer, received over £28m in business rates relief. Photo: Alessandra Tarantino/AP

Pets at Home (PETS.L) and B&M Retail (BME.L) have joined the stampede of high street retailers forgoing COVID-19 tax relief that was granted by the government earlier this year.

Pets at Home and B&M said they would both hand millions of pounds to the exchequer, voluntarily paying the business rates they avoided during the pandemic. The announcement follows similar decisions from supermarkets earlier this week.

The move means retail businesses have so far pledged to give almost £1.8bn ($2.4bn) to the UK government this week alone.

READ MORE: Tesco repays £585m business rate savings as it defends taking UK government cash

B&M said on Thursday afternoon it was “now right to forego the business rates relief,” which it said totalled around £80m. Pets at Home followed on Friday morning, saying it would return £28.9m to the government.

“We were very grateful for the rates relief provided back in March during a time of significant uncertainty, which helped us to take the decision to keep our stores, online operations and veterinary practices open,” said Pets at Home chief executive Peter Pritchard.

“Recent positive news around the launch of vaccinations for COVID-19 has led us to reassess the level of uncertainty ahead.”

File photo dated 27/3/2020 of a Pets at Home store. Pets at Home is set to reveal a surge in sales over the past six months after the pandemic helped to drive a boom in pet ownership.
A Pets at Home store. Photo: PA

The government announced at the start of the pandemic that retailers would be temporarily exempt from business rates, a form of tax charged on buildings used for corporate purposes. The tax break saved retailers millions on their stores.

In recent weeks, the supermarket sector drew criticism for accepting the tax break while at the same time paying out millions in dividends to shareholders. Supermarkets were allowed to stay open throughout lockdowns and sales have surged.

Supermarkets initially rebuffed calls for them to forgo the tax relief but Tesco (TSCO.L) broke ranks on Wednesday and announced it would hand over half a billion pound in business rate relief. The move prompted rivals Sainsbury’s (SBRY.L), Aldi, Asda, and Morrisons (MRW.L) to all pledge similar repayments.

WATCH: Why can't governments just print more money?

READ MORE: UK supermarkets 'do the right thing' repaying £1.7bn COVID-19 tax breaks

While the moves are likely to be popular with the public, industry insiders said the move highlighted the need for fundamental reform to the tax system.

Retailers complain that business rates put them at a disadvantage to online-only retailers who pay much lower rates due to their lack of stores. Submissions to parliament last year showed business rates paid by Amazon (AMZN) accounted for less than 1% of UK sales, compared to 2.5% for Next (NXT.L) and 1.8% for Marks & Spencer (MKS.L).

“The taxation of retailing in the is now fundamentally broken, unfair and unethical,” Greg Lawless and Clive Black, retail analysts at Shore Capital, wrote in a note on Friday. Lawless and Black have argued retailers should not forgo the tax break.

B&M’s chief executive Simon Arora said the system needed a rethink, even as he announced his company would voluntarily submit to a higher tax bill.

“We request urgent reform of the outdated business rates system that is contributing to job losses across the retail sector and is acting as a deterrent to B&M and other potential occupiers taking up vacant space in many locations,” Arora said in a statement.

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