Sundays are up for sale: If we want healthy local communities, we must restrict seven-day shopping, argues Geoffrey Maitland Smith

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The Independent Online
IT IS much easier to argue that there should be no restrictions on Sunday shopping than it is to argue for restrictions. After all, freedom of choice is a principle that we would all ascribe to. However, there are a number of important and, I believe, adverse consequences for the British way of life were Parliament to allow all retailers to open on all Sundays.

The British high streets have long played an important role in this country's life. They are the first port of call for us to obtain the material necessities of daily life and where we can find the services that we need to manage our homes and our finances.

They serve as social and cultural centres where people mix with others, where they eat and drink together and where they can be entertained. The high streets also play a vital commercial role for local authorities in providing them with a large part of their revenue in the form of rates, which income goes to provide the general public with innumerable local services such as schools, the police and the cleaning of streets.

Over the past 20 years we have begun to see the emergence of out-of-town shopping centres, Brent Cross in north London being one of the first. This was followed by the do-it- yourself and furniture 'sheds' and then the food superstores and large out-of-town centres which are now dotted around the UK.

From the start, thoughtful commentators questioned the potential impact of this on the hearts of our city centres. To their credit, many far-sighted local authorities realised the potential threat posed to the city centre and began pedestrianising their high streets and providing car-parking facilities, thus maintaining their attraction to shoppers.

But out-of-town shopping centres were clearly here to stay - and quite rightly, for they have brought many good things to British retailing. But we cannot afford to ignore their contribution to the decline of the traditional high street.

The high street will suffer even more if all retailers are permitted to open every Sunday. The independent small retailer will be worst hit and there will undoubtedly be a decline in the numbers that will be able to afford to continue to trade.

The Bill before Parliament, which is to be put to the vote on Wednesday, will offer three options. All will permit more shops to open than under the present law and remove the nonsensical anomalies that now exist. Two options propose deregulation - allowing all shops to open for some or most of the day to sell everything.

The third option (supported by the Retailers for Shops Act Reform/Keep Sunday Special (RSAR/KSS)) also extends local Sunday shopping but concentrates on the shops the public most use on a Sunday - such as small, convenient and village shops, newsagents, chemists, petrol stations, garden centres and DIY stores - and allows for opening for all on the four Sundays before Christmas.

The implications of widespread Sunday trading are far- reaching and certainly about more than shopping convenience for some people. All options permit small convenience shops to open, but deregulation means all retailers, big and small, would be able to open, too.

In fact, given the competitive nature of retailing today, many of us who would prefer not to trade on Sunday may feel compelled to open, simply so as not to lose vital sales to the competition. Many small neighbourhood or village shops, an essential resource for some people, would be put out of business and thus restrict the choice of where we would prefer to shop. The elderly, those less able and people without cars would suffer most.

Deregulation would extend the time available for shopping and may suit people who are busy or work unusual hours; but, as demonstrated in the United States, longer shopping hours do not create significant extra sales, and the additional costs of Sunday opening, falling not only on the retailer but also on local authorities, would undoubtedly lead to higher prices for everyone.

Even under the RSAR/KSS option, all shopping will be permitted on the important four Sundays before Christmas, which will relieve the pressure of shopping during the busiest time of the year for both customers and shop workers.

Part-time jobs on Sunday would expand under deregulation. While this may seem attractive to many, it would be at the expense of full-time jobs as the pattern of shopping changes. The recent London Economics Survey, commissioned by the Home Office, concluded that total or partial deregulation would result in 20,000 jobs lost in retailing. This supports the earlier findings of the Institute of Fiscal Studies.

The effects of seven-day trading on the environment are not insignificant either. Deregulation would cause more disturbance, traffic congestion and delivery vehicles on the roads on Sunday, with the need for more police, public transport, refuse collection and traffic wardens - all adding to council-tax bills - especially in the South-east where the population is concentrated. Sunday would thus become like any other day in the week. The hustle, bustle, stress and strain of late 20th-century living would proceed unabated for every one of the seven days in a week.

Although there are three options in the Bill before Parliament, in my mind they boil down to two: deregulation, either total or partial, allowing all shopping facilities to be open on Sunday throughout the year, which will lead to the further decline of our high streets and small corner shops as we know them; or the RSAR/KSS option which proposes some reasonable limitations to opening on Sundays with a view to maintaining vibrant, healthy high streets in the towns and cities of Great Britain.

I know where my vote would be.

The author is chairman of Sears plc, which owns Selfridges, Richard Shops and Saxone among other high street stores.

(Photograph omitted)