In Defence of the Present Sunday Trading Hours

Why six hours on the Sabbath Day is enough

Outside the mall
intu Trafford Centre, a present-day place of worship for many shoppers. Image by Mijaeus (Creative Commons License – Some Rights Reserved)

Since November 1994, against the will of Keep Sunday Special, Sunday trading as we know today began in England and Wales. In Northern Ireland it is only five hours instead of six. Today, a vote to extend Sunday Trading hours was defeated 317 to 286 in the House of Commons. 27 Conservative MPs voted against George Osborne’s plan, which was backed by Sajid Javid MP. The plans were opposed by Labour Party and Scottish National Party MPs.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer’s plans would have given local authorities the right to extend Sunday trading hours to those of weekdays and Saturdays. It would have meant more flexibility for all kinds of retailers. In spite of the added flexibility, something else would have been lost.

Continuity

As a teenager, I used to be bored stiff on Sundays because there was nothing exciting to do. Sundays meant Heartbeat, getting some last minute homework done, or playing computer games. When I became a Man of Substation, I rediscovered these wonderful things called buses. Sunday services. Sparse though they were in 1997 (and more sparse in 2016 except for improvements on Bank Holiday services), a boom. Not least the fact I wanted to use my 16 – 19 Bus Pass to the max.

As I went towards young adulthood, thanks to the 220 service (Lord rest its soul apart from the solitary morning positioning journey to Stalybridge), it meant museums and art galleries. The fact I could call in TESCO Metro was more for convenience rather than a great desire to top up my Clubcard points. The shops were always secondary.

Hence 10 till 4 or 11 till 5. 12 noon to 6pm even.

For the Sabbath day, six hours is more than enough. Not just on religious grounds; on holistic grounds. That of offering some balance to a bog-standard seven-day week. A time of rest for people who have toiled for the other five or six days in the week. If you’re a shop worker, Sunday is sometimes your only day off.

Reflection

Sunday should also be a time for reflection. A time for sedate activities. A chance to go for a walk in the countryside or a quiet pint. A time to pause with family or do your own thing.

As I approached my mid to late 30s I began to appreciate Sundays more. If you’re cooped in an office for 40 hours and barely see natural light, it is a chance to escape, and finish the week on a high for the next week. Whether you prefer to go to church or visit an art gallery on Sunday it is up to you.

Balance

Though I didn’t like the Sunday trading hours at first in 1994, I am happy with the balance. I am happy with smaller units being open longer than big box retailers on the grounds of traffic and convenience. In spite of this, it hasn’t stopped the likes of TESCO and J. Sainsbury from circumventing the six hour opening time by developing smaller Metro, Express or Local stores. Also to the expense of public houses (which is another argument beyond this one).

The Weakened Weekend

George Osborne’s plans would have devalued – or even led to the abolition of our weekend. Historically, shop workers have been paid overtime rates for Sunday hours. Of late, this is being depreciated; extending weekday hours to Sundays would have meant the loss of unsocial hours premium payments. (I think we may have heard about this before with the Junior Doctors whom at the time of this piece went on their third strike).

It is claimed that extended hours would give retailers an extra edge over the likes of Amazon. It would offer extra time for shoppers, but shoppers only have a finite amount of cash. Shop workers need time to nip to the shops too.

If implemented in future months, in spite of the results of today’s vote at the House of Commons, I doubt as if every English and Welsh town would embrace the extension. Smaller retailers, with fewer resources than the likes of TESCO may prefer to have Sunday as a day of rest. The TESCO Expresses and Sainsburys Locals of many a small town could close if they prefer to extend opening hours at their nearby superstore.

I can imagine tourist hotspots and seaside resorts being the only places to embrace any Sunday extension. Major cities, possibly; out-of-town shopping centres like intu Trafford Centre, yes. Though this may be good for holidaymakers and day trippers, it wouldn’t be good for people having to put up with extra traffic and noise pollution.

Mission Creep

The initial attraction of any Sunday extension may be soured thereafter. Its populace will expect buses, trains and trams to run at similar frequencies to the other six days of the week. It is unreasonable to expect Sunday frequencies if Ashton-under-Lyne opens at 9am and closes at 6pm on a Sunday. If the first bus is at 9am and shop workers need to be in before then, any extension is doomed to fail.

Then, the populace may expect public services to have a seven-day week. In one way, they would want to see public libraries open on Sunday, though funding a five days a week service can be a challenge. On the other hand, the DWP could expect jobseekers to sign on on a Sunday morning. Could peak hour public transport restrictions be used seven days a week?

As a consequence, there will be no rest for anyone. Not only shop assistants. Also what’s left of the public sector workforce. Families may be unable to see their children at all if they go to a day nursery seven days a week. What about school seven days a week? Does anybody fancy seven days a week of rush hour congestion? What about all these fantastic events that take place on weekends like transport festivals or brass band concerts? Who’s going to play football? Would Super Sunday be up against the latest Julian Fellowes epic, with the Manchester Derby taking place at 8pm?

Ultimately, the people of England and Wales could be frazzled. Sleeplessness could be as common as boarded-up or demolished public houses. There could be a lot of miserable bedsteads on our isle due to sleep deprivation and the extension of our ‘long hours culture’.

Plus we all need a rest in the weekend. Today’s result is good news for those who live for their Saturdays and Sundays (but for how long we wonder).

If I was that mithered about shopping outside of 10-4 or 11-5, I would go for the internet. Whether you’re religious or otherwise, Sunday should be kept special. Long may it remain a space for quiet contemplation instead of consumption.

S.V., 09 March 2016.

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