In his 2015 budget, Chancellor George Osborne revealed plans to allow shops in England and Wales to open for longer on Sundays. The intention is to give local authorities ( or elect mayors) the power to decide whether to relax Sunday trading laws locally if this is likely to boost economic activity and employment. Local authorities will be given the discretion to determine which, if any, part of their area would benefit from longer hours, allowing them to reflect the shopping needs of local people as well as to increase trade. There will be no changes to the restrictions governing shopping on Christmas Day and Easter Sunday.
Under the current Sunday trading law, unchanged since 1994, all shops may open for up to six consecutive hours between 10am and 6pm, while small shops covering less than 3,000 square feet (280 square metres) can stay open all day. This area includes all parts of the shop used to display goods and serve customers. Retailers cannot get around the restrictions by closing off parts of their shop on Sundays.
In addition, workers in any shop that opens on a normal Sunday may have special employment rights. A shop worker cannot be made to work on Sunday unless they and their employer agree and put it in writing (i.e. change the contract).
In July, the New West End Company, which represents 600 retailers in the West End of London, made a pledge to create 2,000 new jobs if Sunday trading hours are extended. The Chancellor cited New West End Company research in his budget announcement, stating that two extra trading hours on Sunday would boost Central London business by £260 million each year and provide 2,000 additional full-time retail jobs.
Proposals to extend Sunday trading hours in the West End and London’s major shopping centres are supported by London’s largest retailers and by policies in the London Plan, the Mayor of London’s over all planning strategy for the capital. Richard Dickinson, chief executive of the New West End Company said ‘West End businesses welcome the government’s commitment to review Sunday trading and an opportunity for greater flexibility on the current trading hours. Over £8.8 billion is spent in Oxford Street, Regent Street and Bond Street each year, so we must continue to compete globally and reflect changing shopper trends’.
The Association of Convenience Stores (ACS) is sceptical of the proposed changes, arguing that as the majority of high street stored are already able to open whenever they want, there would be no increase in high street sales. ACS’s own research showed that 23 per cent of retailers report that they would have to cut staff hours in response to reduced sales from Sunday trading changes.
The ACS believes that new research from Oxford Economics, based on the change to the current laws in 1994 and the suspension of Sunday trading laws in 2012, undermines the government’s claim that unrestricted Sunday trading would bring a £1.4 billion boost to the economy overall. Oxford Economics concludes that scrapping the current rules will mainly serve to divert trade from small stores to larger stores, and would cost jobs. The clear winners would be out-of-town retail parks and large superstores.
ACS chief executive James Lowman said: ‘’Allowing large stores to open 24/7 will not create any more trade, but will simply displace it from local shops to large super-stores. As a net impact, this will lead to job losses’.
Open Sundays, the grass-roots organisation campaigning for the liberalisation of Sunday trading laws in England and Wales, welcomed the government’s proposals to give local authorities or mayors the power to extend Sunday shopping hours. Ideally, Open Sundays would like Parliament to make laws where the power to extend Sunday trading hours rests with shop owners – not politicians – in response to consumer demand. Their stance is liberalise first, then localise (if you must).
The British Retail Consortium (BRC), the trade association for the UK’s retail industry, argues that the diversity of the UK retail industry means that any potential benefit of extending hours on a Sunday to a retailer would only be experienced on a case-by-case basis. Each business would weigh up what best suits their customers and their business model. Just as no two places are the same, no two stores are alike, runs the BRC’s argument.
Consequently, the BRC has pressed for effective consultation with business and the community, so that both shops and shoppers obtain the clarity and certainty they need. A BRC spokesperson said: ‘’Plans to devolve powers on Sunday trading law to elected mayors and / or local authorities mark a very significant change. It needs to be carefully thought through if the impact on local communities, their shops and their staff is to be fully understood. If these powers were to be devolved, then what matters is getting the decision-making-process right from the beginning. For instance, the local authority would want to consult retailers and other local stakeholders at an early stage’’.
No shop can function without its staff. The Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers (USDAW) has strong misgivings over the government’s proposal to devolve Sunday trading. USDAW believes that further liberalisation of Sunday trading hours would undermines the work-life balance of shop workers and would create chaos in the retail sector.
John Hannett, USDAW General Secretary, said: ‘’Our members have told us overwhelmingly that they very much value restricted Sunday trading hours, which allows them a little time to spend with their family and provides a welcome breather in an increasingly 24-hour sector. The same is true of many small independent retailers. The Sunday Trading Act is a great British compromise which has worked well for over 20 years. It gives everyone a little bit of what they want – retailers can trade, customers can shop and staff can work, while Sunday remains a special day when shop workers can spend some time with their family.’’
Whether this British compromise will continue after two decades remains to be seen.
Alexa Michael, Business Information Executive LCCI