This is a sponsored post by the Association of Convenience Stores.
As we emerge from a generation-altering pandemic in need of new ideas and new ways to rebuild the economy, it sadly appears that this Government is still stuck looking to the past for inspiration.
The latest attempt to change Sunday trading regulations is brewing under the cloak of Coronavirus recovery, but this historically controversial policy that handed both Thatcher and Cameron defeats in the Commons is still nothing more than misdirection; an attempt to show that the Government is doing something to support the economy without having to produce anything of substance.
It’s not even as though abandoning the current regulations on Sunday trading is a popular measure that has been dashed by technicalities in the past. It’s not popular with the public; it’s not popular with experts on retail, and it’s certainly not popular with shop workers.
Consumer polling conducted by Populus just last month shows that the current Sunday trading regulations still have overwhelming support. Fifty-eight per cent of the public support them the way they are, compared with 21 per cent who think they should change. Of that number, a significant proportion are in favour of stricter regulations, such as a full closure of shops on Sundays.
We’re not suggesting the Government go that far, but believe, as do the majority of the public, that the current Sunday trading regulations are a Great British compromise, allowing those who need to shop early or late on a Sunday the opportunity to do so with small shops in their communities, but also giving thousands of key workers in supermarkets a much needed break.
The contrast between white-collar workers being encouraged to stay at home and find the perfect spot in front of their bookcases for Zoom calls, and retail key workers putting themselves at risk on a daily basis to keep shelves full could not be more stark.
Removing Sunday trading regulations to give yet another competitive advantage to big supermarkets is also a slap in the face to the thousands of small convenience store owners that have been working night and day to keep shelves stocked, provide for vulnerable people and ensure that their communities have the food that they need.
When the lockdown began and the supermarkets were stripped bare, it was the convenience stores that came to the nation’s rescue. Now some in the Government would put those same convenience stores and the jobs they provide at risk.
A study conducted by Oxford Economics in 2015 showed that displaced trade from small shops to their larger counterparts could cost up to £870 million and 3,270 jobs. Some of those that gave their communities a lifeline during lockdown will be given a death sentence by the Government if Sunday trading changes were to pass.
When you look into the wider economic arguments for extending Sunday trading hours, they’re utterly unconvincing. Supporters will point to a supposed sales boost in the summer of 2012, when emergency legislation was passed to allow larger stores to open around the time of the London Olympics and show that Britain was “open for business”.
But according to those collecting data around that time like the ONS and the British Retail Consortium, sales actually struggled during that summer… likely because people were at home with their families cheering on the unprecedented success of our British athletes.
In the last decade, there have been several substantive high street reviews published by experts like Mary Portas, Bill Grimsey, the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee and the Centre for Cities, all considering a range of options to boost the economy and ensure the long-term sustainability of businesses trading in city centres and on high streets across Britain.
Across these reviews, no less than 150 recommendations have been made, covering everything from business rates, rents and planning regulations, to town centre design and local authority funding.
But Sunday trading regulations? Notably absent. And not just absent from the reviews, but absent from the parting statements of the high street businesses that have sadly fallen into administration in the last decade. If extending Sunday trading hours is really a shot in the arm to the economy, you would expect it to be part of the conversation about high street revival. The truth is it’s not.
In the coming weeks and months, moving past the lockdown and into the next phase of this pandemic, the Government must focus on policies that will bring the nation together in recovery, not divide it. Sunday trading regulations provide a delicate balance that supports shop workers, families and independent business owners and ensures that for just a few hours, Sunday remains special. Let’s keep it that way.