Doncaster Council to hand Sports Direct billionaire Mike Ashley £125,000 in rates relief for Flannels store opening

Flannels on Priory Walk. Picture: George Torr
Flannels on Priory Walk. Picture: George Torr

Doncaster Council will hand over a six-figure sweetener to Sports Direct billionaire owner Mike Ashley over fears a prominent town centre unit would be left empty.

High-end clothing retailer Flannels, part of Ashley’s empire, has been handed £125,000 in business rates ‘help’ by council bosses amid concerns the former pub and nightclub unit it bought back in 2016 would be left derelict for years to come.

Doncaster Council agreed the funding to Flannels’ over the ‘derelict’ site at Priory Walk, formerly the Walkabout bar, despite the fashion chain turning over £62 million last year making a £5 million in profit.

Council bosses said if Doncaster is to survive as a ‘vibrant town centre’ it has to find ‘innovative ways to attract business’.

Mayor Ros Jones recently tweeted they were looking at a ‘budget gap’ of around £24 million. 

According to business rates group Altus, the local authority sold off several high-profile buildings - including two former community centres - to raise more than £800,000.

Renovation had already begun on the former pub and nightclub but work was halted by Ashley’s head of property acquisition rendering the premises unusable and not liable to pay any business rates unlike neighbouring chains and independents.

Council documents show bosses knew the move may upset independent traders and should consider ‘the risk of setting a precedent for further retail applications and challenges if they are not supported’.

The report also shows bosses fears the unit would be turned into a ‘Bargain Max’ store which is also under Ashley’s portfolio.

The money is to be paid over two year with the first instalment in 2019/2020.

One independent business owner in Doncaster town centre who didn’t wish to be named, said they were angry at the news.

They said: “We’ve received no help at all and other independents don’t get council help so why does a huge profit-making chain get some?

“It seems like they (Sports Direct) have forced the council into this position. It’s a real kick in the teeth for small business owners.”

But another business owner in Doncaster town centre was slightly more understanding.

Beverly Georgiou, owner of the Coffee House on Printing Office Street said: “I launched my new coffee house some weeks ago across the road from Flannels risking everything I own with no grants from either the council, Yorkshire regeneration fund or the banks. Would I have liked some help or investment? Yes, absolutely, and I did try.

“But the opening of the Flannels store is going to boost the economy of Printing Office Street and it will give the many independent shops along the street an opportunity to survive.”

Doncaster Council’s assistant director for development, Scott Cardwell said: “If Doncaster is to survive as a vibrant town centre then we have to find innovative ways to attract businesses here.

“One of the ways we do this is to work with businesses and offer support where possible. We also need to stand out from the crowd and be different from other destinations.

“Our vision for the town centre is to have a diverse cultural, leisure and retail offer and this forms part of the plans we have put in place to boost our economy and attract visitors and shoppers from around the region.

“The addition of this high end retailer to Doncaster brings increased footfall to a specific area of the town centre which also benefits the surrounding businesses.

“Flannels were awarded a grant as part of our business investment scheme, which provides support for new and existing businesses to grow and bring in new investment.

“Whatever grant is given to relocate or grow businesses in Doncaster will be recouped in additional business rates. In the last four years this scheme has helped 29 businesses and seen 800 new jobs created.”