Sunday trading: far from an open and shut case
Plans to extend Sunday trading hours have been put to public consultation with a view to bringing Northern Ireland in line with the rest of the UK. Robin Morton takes a closer look at the arguments for and against longer opening hours.
The Ulster Sunday has undergone an evolution – if not a revolution – since the distant days of the 1950s when the swings in Belfast parks were locked up on the Sabbath.
For many people nowadays, Sunday is not centred on church activities. The focus is more likely to be on family outings, sporting activities and, increasingly, going shopping.
The seismic shift took place in 1997 when the Sunday Trading Order was passed, enabling large stores to open from 1pm and 6pm.
The 1pm restriction – which does not apply in Britain – was a concession to the churches. It meant that Sunday morning services would be over by the time stores opened their doors.
But now proposals are afoot to remove that restriction, and permit all stores to trade for longer hours on a Sunday.
In December the Social Development Minister Alex Attwood published a consultation document on the subject, inviting feedback from the business community and the public by the start of April.
Mr Attwood insists he has an open mind on the issue, but significantly he has highlighted the economic benefits of a relaxation of the laws.
He said: “My priority is getting the balance right between earlier opening and retaining the tradition of Sunday as a family day.
“Easing the current restrictions could help the local economy, benefit the tourism industry and support regeneration of town and city centres.
“This would be very useful in the current economic environment and going forward.”
At present, Northern Ireland is out of line with England, where large stores are permitted to trade on Sundays between 10am and 6pm, and also with Scotland, where there is complete deregulation.
The DSD has not identified any preferred option, but one compromise between commercial and church interests might be to enable large shops to open from 11am.
Something of a pathfinder has been the decision by Belfast City Council to open St George’s Market from 10am to 4pm on Sundays.
Initially, the new opening hours operated on a trial basis between June and September last year, but the venture proved so popular that it has been extended for a further year.
The aim at City Hall is to make Sunday opening a permanent fixture, subject to a positive review in a year’s time.
The venture is proving popular with stall-holders and the public. Visitor figures show that around 3,000 people patronised the Sunday market during October and November.
The opening of the market on Sundays is seen as part of the answer to the oft-quoted complaint from tourists that there is nothing to do in Belfast on a Sunday morning.
Church groups have been active in the protests against the proposal to extend Sunday trading hours, but so far the campaign has not been as vociferous as in 1997.
In a considered response, the Presbyterian Church’s influential church and society committee maintained that the proposal for extra shopping hours on Sundays did not reflect the “broad opinion” in Northern Ireland.
The committee said: “We cannot see who will benefit from an extension of Sunday trading hours, apart from the big multinationals, while it is clear that such a move will further undermine the small single trader.
“We would suggest that if Sunday trading is to be extended it will encourage the kind of materialism and spirit of acquisition that causes a society to lose the run of itself and fall into chaos.”
Glyn Roberts, chief executive of the 1,300 member Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association, maintained that the current laws were perfectly adequate for retailers and offered customers ample time to shop.
Mr Roberts said: “While we understand fully that Mr Attwood is approaching this issue with the best of intentions, we take the view that the current laws ain’t broke, so why fix them? Our concern in NIIRTA is that small traders such as newsagents and convenience stores could be adversely affected if the UK multiples are allowed to open all day on Sunday,” he said.
“Many of these small stores depend on selling newspapers and other grocery items such as milk and bread on Sunday mornings.”
Mr Roberts added: “In our view Sunday mornings create an opportunity for Belfast city centre to do something different. Already a café culture is developing and we should be looking at opening museums and other visitor attractions earlier in the day.
“Simply to open the stores earlier in the day would just mean more of the same and would turn Sunday into just another shopping day.”
Equally strong in its opposition is the shopworkers union Usdaw, which conducted a survey on the issue among 1,000 of its members.
Some 73% of those who responded said they were opposed to shops being allowed to open any longer than the existing five-hour stint.
Kieran Smyth, Usdaw Belfast area organiser, said: “Shopworkers are all too often put under pressure to work on a Sunday, often in an informal way that makes them feel that if they want to maintain a good relationship with their manager or even keep their job then they have no choice.
“Shops can already open 149 hours a week, 363 days of the year and Usdaw does not believe there is any clamour from the people of Northern Ireland for extending Sunday opening.”
Belfast City Centre Management also carried out a survey which showed that in general there was little enthusiasm among traders for increased opening hours on Sunday, although some shop-owners wanted more flexibility, such as opening between 11am and 4pm.
Andrew Irvine, the city centre manager, said the only major exception was House of Fraser at Victoria Square, which has made a submission for Sunday trading hours to be extended to between 11am and 5pm.
Mr Irvine said: “At present stores in the centre of Belfast are open for 70 hours a week, and many traders argue that opening for longer hours simply increases the cost base without adding significantly to takings.
“A case in point is midweek shopping, which has been reduced from three nights a week to just one as we see evidence of the recession dampening demand.”
Hugh Black, centre manager at Victoria Square, which houses more than 70 retailers, said they felt that extended opening hours on a Sunday would have a positive impact on the economy and in terms of employment and tourism.
He said: “Ideally we would like to see the trading day extended from 11am until 5pm which would bring us more in line with the rest of the UK and Ireland.
“The choice provided by the extra hours in the Sunday trading day is essential in the efforts to strengthen the economy in these particularly difficult times and extended hours would signify a healthy progression for the retailing environment in Northern Ireland.”
So far the major UK multiples have not shown their hand but it is understood that some are keen to see Sunday trading in Northern Ireland brought into line with England, particularly in out of town shopping centres.
The debate will no doubt intensify as the deadline for submissions draws closer, but with an Assembly election due to take place at the start of May, it will be up to the next administration to progress matters.
Much will hinge on which party takes charge at the Department of Social Development but the debate to date has ensured one thing – this is far from being an open and shut case.