One of the surprises in the Budget was the announcement that powers are to be granted to local authorities to relax restrictions on Sunday trading.
I have daily conversations about devolution with fellow local government leaders, and not one of them has ever expressed a desire to decide who can buy what on a Sunday, but the Treasury moves in mysterious ways.
The current Sunday Trading Act is either a wonderful example of British compromise, or a typical British fudge, depending on your opinion. John Hannett, the general secretary of shop workers union Usdaw, was probably right when he said it seems everyone got a bit of what they wanted: “retailers can trade, customers can shop, staff can work, while Sunday remains a special day, different to other days, and shop workers can spend some time with their family”.
I’m a Christian but my reservations about any changes to Sunday trading are not primarily about religious observance. I understand that it is not Tesco being full which leaves many of our churches half-full.
Complex family structures and working patterns are very common and most people appreciate that families – of all descriptions, ethnicities, beliefs and sexualities, with or without children – want to spend time together.
The retail lobby will soon be telling us that millions are at stake but most people have finite budgets and couldn’t spend any more if every shop was open every minute of every day, as online retailers already are. No one would want people getting into even more debt to fund Sunday evening shopping.
We won’t hear how much family breakdown costs the country and how debt problems and a lack of time spent together all contribute to family breakdown.
Governments can devolve power, and they can devolve blame. This appears to be a new type of devolution: devolving lobby group pressure.
I can hear the advice now: “But Preston/Camden/Leeds has done it, Cllr Blackburn. If we don’t follow suit, we’ll get left behind.” You soon end up, as we have in licensing and planning, with an army of lawyers, armed with woolly legislation, a presumption in favour of permission being granted, and a few well-publicised appeals, and soon everything, everywhere, will have to be open 24/7.
Where will this 24/7 culture end? Boxing Day has already been taken over by sales shopping; what’s next, Christmas Day? Every day we see on the news people who have lost their loved ones and wish they had more time together. Time spent with family and friends is precious and should be treasured. Have we, as a sector, the courage to resist this retail free-for-all? Let’s see.
Simon Blackburn (Lab), leader, Blackpool Council