Proposals to allow councils to extend opening hours were defeated in the Commons on 9 March by 317 votes to 286, following a three-hour debate. Labour MPs, under the banner of their ‘Keep Sunday Special’ campaign, joined the SNP and Conservative backbenchers in opposing the plans.
George Osborne first announced the plans in last year’s Budget. Ministers wanted to give the 353 councils in England and 22 in Wales the freedom to determine opening hours for large shops in their area, in the biggest proposed changes for 20 years.
Small shops (less than 3,000 square feet of trading space) can currently open when they want to on Sundays, but larger stores are limited to six hours between 10am and 6pm (in Scotland, shops have remained open for longer on Sundays for many years). The plans would have allowed councils to offer complete flexibility to allow shops larger than 3,000 square feet to open longer than the current six-hour limit. Had the proposals been passed, councils would have been able to apply relaxed hours to certain areas, such as high streets and city centres. However, Sunday looks set to remain special for the near future.
The government released figures claiming that extending Sunday trading would benefit the UK economy by around £1.5bn over 10 years.
The Planning Minister had argued that Sunday is the biggest shopping day on the internet, and that liberalising planning laws would offer high streets a chance to regenerate. The Business Minister similarly felt this was an opportunity to allow the high street to adapt to changing shopping habits. The British Council of Shopping Centres commented that its members are disappointed with the vote, hoping change would have addressed the inconsistencies in Sunday trading hours between leisure, restaurant and retail outlets. The BCSC had previously commented that the proposals would have increased footfall and revenue.
However, there appear to be a myriad of opinions within the retail sector, according to the British Retail Consortium’s chief executive Helen Dickinson. Whilst Sunday trading hours divide opinion, the government’s review of the business rates system is of far greater importance in her opinion. The BCSC also noted that further initiatives such as Town Centre Investment Management could help to bring about much-needed change in the future.