Last week we learnt that Amazon pays just £63 million in business rates despite recording sales of a staggering £8 billion. Meanwhile small business owners here in Dover and Deal pay eye-watering amounts in business rates while working tirelessly to make ends meet. Small surprise then that they look at the unfair advantage of online retailers and demand a more level playing field for tax.
This is why I have long campaigned in Parliament for online giants to be made to pay their fair share of taxes. Of course, local stores need to adapt to the rise of internet shopping. Yet everyone needs to be able to compete fairly. That's why we need to do everything we can to support the great British high street.
This became even clearer this week when Marks & Spencer, a Deal high street fixture of 80 years, announced plans to close. I am extremely disappointed, but also very much surprised. Deal is a town clearly on the rise with a hugely successful town centre – only recently voted the UK's best. Meanwhile the store itself is busy throughout the day. I wonder if a full retail assessment has been carried out – or whether this was a decision taken by spreadsheet. I have asked for an urgent meeting with Marks and Spencer bosses where I will urge them to reconsider.
Here in Dover and Deal I'm also fighting to ensure we get a fairer share of investment. I recently invited Cllr Graham Galpin, who sits on the Government's expert panel on high streets, to come and see what our towns have to offer. Along with Dover District Council leader Keith Morris, we visited the St James development – where the hated Burlington House once stood. The new cinema, shops and restaurants have risen in its place. The once desolate car park is now packed with shoppers. The £50 million invested is paying off. We also walked down Flying Horse Lane and spoke to shopkeepers in Cannon Street and Biggin Street about the challenges they are facing – and listened to their ambitions for the future.
Meanwhile the fast trains to London we campaigned for and delivered has improved Deal and Dover. Yet our station has been left to rust. I'm battling to get it spruced up, so it properly reflects the rising success of Deal.
We also discussed bidding for the Government's Future High Streets Fund, announced in the autumn Budget. Towns can bid for up to £25 million of cash. They need to present a plan on how they will change the use of empty commercial properties, improve transport access and boost footfall. Our corner of Kent is exactly where this money should be invested.
Already much is being done. Town centre retailers are being offered grants of up to £10,000 to smarten up shop fronts and attract new customers – with Brunch in Biggin Street being the latest beneficiary. And an application for a £3 million project to "revitalise Dover's Historic Market Square and Old Town" has reached the next stage of the Government's Coastal Communities Fund.
Our town centres have such huge potential – to offer people the sort of experiences and community spirit which you just can't get online. I'm determined to see the likes of Amazon pay a fairer share. And to make our high streets the best they can be.