I am writing on behalf of the opposition Labour Group on Medway Council, a large Unitary Authority in Kent approximately 35 miles from London with a local population of almost 300,000 people.
The government’s proposal to devolve powers for setting trading hours to local authorities is likely to have a significant negative effect on residents, families and small businesses across the Medway Towns.
Retail is a significant employer in Medway; more than 21,000 people work in wholesale and retail, which equates to more than 17% of our working age population.
Whilst we support the principle of devolving further functions to local authorities in many areas, the proposed devolution of Sunday trading hours would create a fragmented regulatory regime akin to a postcode lottery.
Retailers value stability and consistency; the current trading laws which have been in place for over 20 years are simple, consistent and transparent.
Medway is a conurbation of 5 towns, each having its own High Street. Many retail units in these High Streets are occupied by small businesses who are likely to suffer if larger retailers are allowed to open longer on Sundays. Local shopping parades, corner shops and convenience stores will also be affected by a loss of trade.
Under the current regulatory regime, when the large stores over 3,000 square feet close early on a Sunday, that’s also the time when small retailers get much busier. It’s a small but vital competitive advantage they currently have over the large supermarkets, and for many it is the difference between profit and loss. Extending Sunday Trading hours would tip the balance further in favour of the big retailers, and it is estimated that smaller stores could lose up to 20% of their takings at the till.
Two of Medway’s High Streets in particular have struggled to compete with nearby out of town shopping centres in recent years. More widely our retail sector has suffered at the expense of the nearby Bluewater Shopping Centre (the 4th largest in the UK) and we are concerned that Medway Council as a standalone local authority won’t have any real powers to influence the retail sector.
In reality, if Sunday trading hours are devolved, Medway will be at the mercy of any decision taken by Dartford Borough Council (the local authority in which Bluewater is located) to extend Sunday trading hours. As soon as Dartford BC agrees to extend Sunday opening hours, larger stores in neighbouring areas will complain that they are losing trade to Bluewater which can open longer. So we are likely to see a “Domino Effect” where Medway Council and others feel forced to extend opening hours for large stores, regardless of the impact it will have on small stores and retail staff.
Indeed, the difficulty with devolving powers like this has been highlighted by the Chief Executive of Sainsbury’s, Mike Coupe who says that proposed laws are ‘open to interpretation and open to abuse. There’s a lot of complexity in the way it’s being framed.’
Furthermore, there is no evidence that longer Sunday trading will bring any economic benefits. Longer opening hours do not mean people have more money to spend. This was evidenced in 2012 during the 8 week Olympic period when retail sales actually fell by 0.4% when Sunday Trading was extended. The government concluded that there was a “modest benefit to larger retailers [during the Olympics] but a more significant loss to smaller retailers”.
A 2006 government cost-benefit analysis also concluded that extended Sunday trading would not result in any increase in retail sales or in employment.
Small businesses are also a key consideration for us here in Medway. Small businesses are the lifeblood of our economy. They create jobs for local people. And they are vital to the sustainability of our local shopping parades and high streets.
If small businesses are forced to close as a result of the changes, then hundreds of people in Medway could lose their livelihoods. Let’s not also forget the lifeline local shops provide to customers who do not have a car and who rely on the continuing existence of convenience stores near to where they live.
It is estimated that around 80% of all retail staff currently work on Saturdays. In large stores over half of staff work every Saturday, making time on Sundays even more precious.
Despite workers having the right to opt out of working on Sundays, very few do because they already come under pressure to work on Sundays when they do not wish to. A further relaxation in Sunday trading laws would only intensify this pressure further, as managers struggle to fill staffing rotas. If Sunday trading laws are extended, evidence suggests that staff will also lose their regular working hours during the week and be expected to work Sunday shifts instead. Also many workers are fearful that their working hours will be cut if they opt out of Sundays – income which most cannot afford to lose.
Whether religious or not, the vast majority of people value Sunday as being different from every other day of the week.
For most it is a time to rest, a day to spend valuable time with their children, friends or relatives. Sunday working interferes with family life, especially on the ability of parents to spend time with their children who may well be at school, and their partners who work Monday – Friday or even Monday – Saturday.
The current shorter Sunday hours mean even those who do have to work can finish early and have some family time, or attend a religious service.
We also underestimate the number of people who have caring responsibilities. Around half of retail staff have caring responsibilities for elderly, sick or disabled relatives, or for children. And around two-thirds of carers say they already find it difficult to find suitable alternative care when they have to work on Sundays.
In a world where most people are working longer hours and leading increasingly busy, stressful lives, people value Sundays being different.
In summary, we feel that there are no tangible economic or social benefits that can be gained from these proposed changes: the retail sector does not want a fragmented regulatory regime; local authorities will be at the mercy of a “domino effect”, undermining the principle of devolution; small businesses will suffer; our High Streets are likely to continue their decline; retail workers will be negatively affected; and the quality of life for families will be further eroded.
For these reasons, we are opposed to the devolution of Sunday trading hours to local authorities.
As this is a matter of public interest we will be placing a copy of this letter on our website.
I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this matter.
Councillor Andy Stamp
Medway Labour Group Spokesperson for Regeneration and Communities & Member for Gillingham North Ward
Cc: Rehman Chishti MP (Gillingham & Rainham)
Tracey Crouch MP (Chatham & Aylesford)
Kelly Tolhurst MP (Rochester & Strood)