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Sweet or sour?
Oxford Street sweet cheats in the hot seat
Welcome to a brand new week in London (one that’s supposed to deliver a mini heat wave just in time for the weekend).
Today we’re taking a look at the Mail’s ‘exclusive’ look at a ‘major probe’ into the sweet shops of Oxford Street, to see if there’s anything exclusive or major about it.
Plus, on the eve of the five year anniversary of the Grenfell fire, we round up some of the articles looking at the aftermath of the tragedy; and that’s followed by a risky 180 degree vibe change to naked people riding bikes.
This issue is public and free for anyone to read, so if you enjoy it please share it on social media etc:
Over the weekend the Mail broke the ‘exclusive’ story that a “major probe” was being launched into Oxford Street’s American candy stores (if you don’t want to click through to the Mail’s website, here’s the Independent’s write up).
For anyone who’s been paying attention this doesn’t come as a huge surprise and it is a little tricky to discern what Westminster Council’s ‘probe’ entails exactly.
We have read the entirety of the Mail’s exclusive article (just so you don’t have to) and as far as we can see there’s nothing new in there (other than the ‘revelation’ that some of the shops use TikTok to market their wares to poor, unsuspecting children). Overall the accusations levelled at the stores are the same ones that have been made for years. Private Eye was reporting on this stuff back in August of 2019, and the latest reports boils down to the same core stuff:
It’s not just ‘candy stores’ that are doing this. The whole thing started with souvenir shops around Piccadilly Circus in 2006, and the businesses then spread to Oxford Street, where they branched out into overpriced American sweets and vapes.
The scam isn’t money laundering. Although the running joke is that all these stores must be money laundering fronts, the main scam here is tax fraud. The stores are opened, they make a decent amount of income and profit, then they’re dissolved before they submit any accounts to HMRC. A short time later another identical store opens up in its place. Simply rinse and repeat for over 100 stores across central London. This also means the stores avoid paying business rates, which can easily run into the millions in the locations we’re talking about.
The scam might also be money laundering. According to Private Eye’s investigation, the souvenir stores they were looking at were run by a network of Afghani nationals who began to “infiltrate” the West End in the late noughties after the billions of dollars that flooded in to Afghanistan was “less than scrupulously distributed” under president Hamid Karzai. There are arguments against these stores being money laundering operations. Namely, 1) there are more subtle ways of laundering money than taking over a good chunk of prime real estate in the West End of London; and 2) they actually make a decent amount just by charging people eight quid for a box of After Eights.
Why hasn’t anyone done anything about it? The Eye article from 2019 quotes someone at Westminster Council saying that “there are a number of souvenir shops within the borough that are currently under investigation” (so much for the Mail’s ‘exclusive’), but it also quotes one “concerned businessman” as saying he’d repeatedly been told by authorities not to bother them with evidence.
It’s not hard to see why landlords have looked the other way for so many years if their choice is between paying business rates on an empty unit or renting out to an unscrupulous ‘candy baron’ (especially during and post lockdown). Similarly, some have accused Westminster Council of tolerating dodgy tat retailers because it’s a lesser evil than strings of empty shop units in one of the most high profile high streets in the country.
Hug it out?
According to the Mail, Westminster Council is “probing more than 30 shops across the West End for allegedly avoiding business rates amounting to at least £7.9million,” but just how exactly they’re going about doing that is unclear.
At the end of April, Radios 4’s You and Yours programme interviewed the then leader of the council, Rachael Robathan, who was clear that the council was more than aware of what scams the shops were pulling, and that as well as talking to the government about the problem, they had tried to bring court action and work with HMRC on the problem, plus they’d spoken to the letting agency Savills as well as a “number of the freeholders and long leaseholders of these premises”.
That was before the local elections of course, and now Westminster has a new Labour council and a new council leader in the form of Adam Hug who has already promised to “revive” Westminster’s retail as well as undertake an “urgent review” of the Tory plans for redesigning Oxford Street.
The problem Adam has is that business rate avoidance isn’t illegal. In a discussion paper on the subject from 2021 the Treasury noted that “unlike evasion, avoidance is not in itself illegal, but it involves exploiting business rates law to gain a financial advantage that Parliament did not intend”.
The paper also said that one of the solutions to stopping what they call ‘phoenix companies’ (i.e. “businesses who trade for a short period of time, cease to trade and then re-open as a different company) was to give local authorities “general or more specific anti-avoidance powers”.
Simple, right? So why hasn’t it happened? Well, a lot of local authorities responded to that discussion paper by saying that granting them those powers would only “cause more cases to be taken to the courts, which in turn would cause resource and funding problems to local authorities.” And one thing councils aren’t fans of right now is anything which causes them even more funding and resource problems.
So is Westminster’s “major probe” going to result in multiple court cases against the crafty confectionary crooks, or is this just the new council leader jumping on the biggest soap box he can find right now to score a massive headline in the Daily Mail?
Only time will tell, but we know where we’d lay our money.
Coming up on Wednesday… 👨🏻🎨️
In our subscriber-only edition this week, we run down some of the best places to see art outside a gallery this summer. We’ve got massive art in parks, balloon art in car parks and ancient mummy art in a tattoo parlour.
If you’re not a paying subscriber already, you can get on board now for just £5 a month or £50 a year:
Five years after Grenfell
Tomorrow is the fifth anniversary of the Grenfell tragedy and on Sunday Sadiq Khan wrote an open letter to the government (via the pages of Observer) calling for more action at a national level to ensure that there’s not a repeat of the disaster.
“We still have too many residents in London and across the country living in high-rise buildings that are covered in dangerous flammable cladding,” says Khan in that article. The Government will reply that they are busy raising money from developers and a “building safety levy” in order to fix dangerous cladding on high rise buildings, but that doesn’t address the thousands already forked out by some residents to fund ‘waking watch’ fire patrols and install fire alarm systems.
Then of course there’s the problem of those residents of high-rise buildings who can’t sell and are “stuck in cladding limbo” as the i calls it in their article from yesterday. As well as profiling a number of high-rise residents from across London, that piece also put the number of people in ’cladding limbo’ at “somewhere just over the million mark”.
One thing the mayor doesn’t address in his letter to the government is that, five years after a fire that claimed 72 lives, no one has been convicted or even charged. The Telegraph ran a pretty devastating piece yesterday looking at the very different kind of limbo the families of the victims are stuck in, and why the process of figuring out where responsibility lies is so tortuous.
Finally, if you have a Times subscription (and you can bear to read it) the paper has published a very long and detailed examination of the “appalling errors and corporate complacency” that led to the tragedy.
Insert joke about skid marks here
No fewer than nine naked bike rides took place across London on Saturday. That’s over a thousand cyclists “wearing either nothing or as little as they deemed possible”.
With all that flesh on display it’s easy to forget that there is a point to the Naked Bike Rides and that is to campaign against “the global dependency on oil, and car culture”.
5 little bits
At the end of last week the Center for London published their report into the always controversial subject of Low Traffic Neighbourhoods. If you don’t have time to read the full thing then this Twitter thread has the main points:[THREAD] Key info from : 1/ In the last two years, over 100 low-traffic neighbourhoods were introduced in London, aiming to cut car use. We found they succeeded in doing this for boroughs across the city, reducing car usage by as much as 76% within affected areas.NEW: Our #LondonLTNs report is out today. It sets out how low-traffic neighbourhoods can fit into London’s long-term strategy to reduce private car use, and how complementary measures can boost their effectiveness. Read the full report: https://t.co/wQ1da3N5GY https://t.co/ndP0bgMqy1Centre for London @centreforlondon
On Saturday a Nigerian man who was being arrested in Peckham for immigration offences was released after protestors “prevented the van he was held in from moving for hours”.
Apparently London’s TikTok office is not a very nice place to work. According to reports, allegations of “excessive workloads” and a “comment made by a male executive about maternity leave,” have led to a “mass exodus” of staff. If you are a current or ex-employee of TikTok and you want to speak to us anonymously about your experiences, get in touch.
Vogue has been capturing some of the best streetstyle from the Spring 2023 Menswear Shows. We are big fans of the basbeball cap veil look, not to mention the oversized pinstripe shorts.
The BBC interviewed TfL’s ‘biggest fan’. Spoiler: He’s French!