The Ashton Review of Shops Extra: A fillup for the local economy or the end of the weekend as we know it?
Announced prior to George Osborne’s Emergency Budget, the Conservative government is considering the notion of longer Sunday trading hours. At present in England and Wales, superstores and department stores can only open for six hours on the Christian sabbath. In Tameside, usually 10am to 4pm. Convenience stores can open for longer hours hence the superstore chains’ investment in smaller shops.
In a special report, The Ashton Review of Shops looks at the ramifications of longer Sunday trading hours.
Only a generation ago on previous Sundays, you couldn’t nip to Hyde’s branch of Food Giant for a pint of milk. Nor could you enjoy a cooked breakfast in its instore café. In some cases, the concept of buying a pint of milk from your supermarket seemed alien and a cooked breakfast meant juggling with grills or frying pans no matter what.
Then came changes to Sunday trading laws. As well as getting rid of some arcane practices – namely the sale of certain items considered taboo on the sabbath – was a retail revolution. 1994 saw the introduction of Sunday trading in the department stores and supermarkets of England and Wales. In spite of sustained campaigning from Keep Sunday Special, Britons took to the town centres and retail parks.
Over in Tameside, the borough’s supermarkets embraced the new hours. With greater enthusiasm than the borough’s shopping centres. In the centre of Ashton, seemingly slow to catch on with only Argos and Woolworths embracing Sunday trading.
Firstly, the introduction of secondhand markets and the Farmers’ Markets would boost footfall into the centre of Ashton. By the 21st century local bus operators began to notice the rise in activity; 2006 would see trunk routes boosted during shopping hours. Sunday would become the UK’s second busiest shopping day.
Today, we cannot imagine a trip to Ashton-under-Lyne without any of the two Sunday markets. In 1994, having a pint of beer with full English breakfast was unthinkable prior to The Ash Tree’s arrival the following year. As was tasting artisanal cheese or bread at 11am. Nowadays, calling in to Bargain Buys for a few bits after 4pm seems alien. By the end of this parliament, could this be run of the mill?
The end of the weekend?
Sunday being a day of rest gives the end of each week some closure, a time for relaxation as well as Christian worship. For me, the end of the week is marked by going to Boarshurst Band Club for an evening concert and a quiet 350 bus from Chew Valley Road. Longer Sunday trading hours could blur the clear boundaries between the start and finish of each week.
Changes to the established weekend pattern and days of rest – which the Labour Movement has fought for – could make for more frazzled employees. Unless businesses enable staff to have their ‘weekend’ on other days of the week as well as the traditional Saturday and Sunday. This wouldn’t only affect shop workers but also bus drivers, train conductors and distributive trades.
Furthermore, this could see a ‘mission creep’ to ensuring public services open seven days a week. See also the government’s promises for a Seven Day NHS. Next, they could cajole local authorities and education providers to do a seven day week. The unemployed could be forced to sign-on at 3pm on Sundays. In return, customers will be expecting a 24/7 Royal Mail plc; also Sunday bus, train and tram services at weekday frequencies. The latter no bad thing for carless urban residents.
Therefore Jobcentre Plus staff wouldn’t just be frazzled. Network Rail could have less time to carry out engineering works. The lack of a rest day would be counterproductive for the Highways Agency or local authorities in planning roadworks.
The view from Tameside
At present, the borough’s Sunday markets in Ashton-under-Lyne and Stalybridge attract healthy footfall. For its shoppers, one of the great joys is a chance to pick up something different to ASDA’s or Tesco’s offerings. With Tameside having a good number of independent shops in its nine towns, some could open Sunday hours under present laws. But, there is neither the staff nor the disposable income to justify opening on Sundays.
Only six miles north east of Ashton, Sundays in Uppermill see constant footfall for most of its independent shops and cafés. There is sufficient footfall on a number of grounds. One is tourism and its proximity to the Peak National Park (popular with walkers). Another is, in comparison with Tameside’s residents perhaps, the higher disposable incomes of Saddleworthians. Sometimes, Uppermill can be busier than its borough’s administrative capital a 184 bus ride away.
Therefore the proposals are likely to benefit Tameside’s superstore chains, at the expense of smaller retailers. Could Tesco reduce its dependence on convenience stores if its superstores open 24 hours a day every day? On the other hand, there is scope for longer trading hours at Ashton’s Farmers’ Market.
Even if extended hours are introduced, I cannot see Tameside’s smaller towns embracing it to the full extent.
A case for longer Sunday hours
Potentially, longer Sunday hours could improve the attractiveness of our towns to visitors. As well as superstores and department stores, open and covered markets could be a seven-day concern. Tourists and time-pressed shoppers may appreciated the longer trading hours.
On the other hand, there is scope for extra parking revenue. Typically, municipal and privately owned car parks charge less for Sunday parking rates. This could be a revenue stream for both the likes of NCP and our local authorities.
If successful, bus operators and rail franchises could expand existing services. If you see the 346 bus at 10am on a Sunday (from Hyde to Ashton), it is usually three quarters full by the time it reaches The Albion Hotel stop. This owing to the Sunday daytime service being once hourly instead of every ten minutes.
As a consequence, our town centres and retail parks could be livelier. With Britons more secular than three decades or so ago, Sunday being a day of rest is an alien concept for some. Unless their definition of rest entails retail therapy.
The UK’s seaside resorts could be buoyed by the longer Sunday hours. For example, the attractiveness of Hounds Hill Shopping Centre [Blackpool] or the Arndale Centre [Eastbourne] could be enhanced. Nearby public houses and cafés could gain extra business as a knock-on effect from added footfall.
A case against longer Sunday hours
Before we consider the notion of longer Sunday hours, we need to think of the workers themselves. It is all very well thinking “hey, that George Osborne’s fantastic. I can do a big shop instead of watching the Britain’s Got Talent final”. What about the people having to work what was considered unsocial hours three decades ago? What if s/he has to work at 8pm and take a taxi thanks to cuts to their bus route? Or those unfortunate enough to work for their dole at 8pm on a Sunday?
With present resources, public and private sector, Tameside lacks the infrastructure for a seventh full time shopping day. Some of our buses need to return to pre-1986 Sunday frequencies (346s every half hour, some to Droylsden; the restoration of a full time link with Dukinfield and Manchester city centre to 1979 frequencies) but there’s neither the political wherewithal nor resources in public and private sectors. As for customer spending, there’s only so many posh coffees the average shopper can afford. According to TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady, there’s no real clamour for longer hours.
Ultimately, the likes of Tesco would prosper at the expense of Raja Bros. Who would want to be a market porter at 6pm if you need to spend time with family? Retail parks could become more popular owing to the larger chains’ wider resources than independent retailers and market stalls. Any efforts at trying to extend bricks and mortar opening hours are being undermined by the power of internet shopping.
The effects on Britain’s infrastructure, let alone Ashton’s, will see our planet and immediate surroundings take a hit. The universally derided BT and ASDA junctions would be clogged seven days a week. Our right to quiet contemplation would be stymied as our day of rest could be interrupted by cold calls. There would be pressure on our public services – thanks to cuts made in the last five years. Jobseekers could be forced to sign on or attend training schemes on Sundays.
In spite of the perceived benefits being peddled to independent retailers they would be most likely to lose, if the playing field is tilted towards the superstore chains.
A fait accompli for longer Sunday hours
I think the status quo works well but there should be a middle ground. One where:
- Independent retailers are free to open longer hours irrespective of size. At present, any shop under a certain amount of square feet can open longer than six hours on Sunday. This should be subject to the retailer’s discretion;
- Superstore chains and department stores should only open for six hours on Sundays as of now;
- Flexibility is given for the opening hours of local indoor and open markets though – most importantly – not without consultation between employees and citizens with local authorities and/or private concerns;
- Local bus, rail and tram services should be more akin to weekday or Saturday operations;
- The Royal Mail’s Sunday postal collections, and deliveries (for the first time since 1969) should be reinstated.
I doubt as if longer Sunday hours would work well in every part of the United Kingdom. In central Manchester, London, Birmingham or tourist hotspots I can see George’s scheme working well.
In Tameside, I think the present hours work just as well. 10am to 4pm is enough; in some cases, Boots on Staveleigh Way for example shuts at 3pm. I can see Ashton Moss and Snipe Retail Park embracing the longer hours along with most superstores. Everywhere elses, 10 till 4 may do.
What are your opinions on George Osborne’s plans to introduce longer Sunday trading hours? Though Tameside MBC and other councils will be given powers to permit this, do you think our local authorities should follow suit? Should they keep the current scheme or offer a middle way favouring independent stores and market stall holders? Whether you’re a retailer, shop worker or customer, feel free to comment on this proposal.
S.V., 09 July 2015.