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Judicial review launched into Sunday trading laws devolution

A group of organisations representing shop owners, retailers, wholesale distributors and church leaders intend to launch a judicial review on the government’s proposals to devolve Sunday trading laws to councils.

The group, working under the ‘Keep Sunday Special’ campaign, has already issued a “letter before action” to Whitehall setting out plans for the legal action, which argues that ministers have not carried out a “genuine and unbiased” consultation process.

The consultation, which ran from 5 August to 16 September and garnered over 7,000 responses, plans to deregulate the power to extend Sunday trading hours to all councils in England and Wales, as well as to the mayors of any established devolution deal.

The move would allow councils to tailor laws to their regional needs by enhancing competition between high streets and online retailers and shopping centres.

Current trading laws were implemented over 20 years ago, before high-street shops faced serious competition from online or out-of-town superstores and retail parks. They prevent large stores, such as supermarket and department stores, from opening for more than six hours, while small shops covering less than 3,000sq ft can stay open all day.

But campaigners argue that the government has ignored evidence that did not fit into its agenda, failed to publish the number of consultation responses that supported and opposed plans, and quoted irrelevant and outdated evidence, such as data from 1970s Sweden.

A spokesperson for the Keep Sunday Special campaign, which was already fighting these proposals when the consultation was launched, said: “We do not enter into this action lightly, and do so with a heavy heart. There are fundamental flaws in the process that the government has taken and full consideration is needed, not the inadequate process that has taken place to date.”

James Lowman, the chief executive of the Association of Convenience Stores (ACS), added that extending opening hours will only benefit out-of-town stores “whilst hurting high streets, Post Offices and small shops”, resulting in a loss of jobs.

When the consultation was launched last year, the ACS submitted evidence that over half of council chief executives said they would extend trading hours for retail parks, supermarkets and large shopping centres. Almost half of chief execs also said they would be “more inclined” to extend hours if a neighbouring council did it.

“This shows that there would be a ‘domino effect’ across the country with each local authority extending trading hours to compete with their neighbouring authority,” the document said, adding that there is no evidence increasing hours will boost overall retail sales.

Campaigners are now calling on retailers to attend a mass lobby of Parliament on 29 February to encourage MPs to vote against plans.

‘Push ahead with plans’ – council leaders and MPs

But yesterday, an LGA spokesman said councils take their responsibilities to high streets and local shops seriously, which includes “making hard decisions and carefully weighing up competing demand and the needs of different groups in order to benefit the whole community and local economy”.

“It is right that councils, in consultation with their residents and local businesses, should be given the flexibility to decide how to drive growth and best attract business to their local high street,” he added.

“However, it is vital that, as the government has previously indicated, any changes are a 'can do' choice rather than a 'must do' duty imposed by central government.”

Business secretary Sajid Javid MP added that the new plans are about putting powers in the hands of local people, and hold the potential to “help businesses and high streets across the UK better compete as our shopping habits change”.

Earlier this week, 150 council leaders and 40 MPs, including London mayor Boris Johnson MP and former ministers Dan Poulter and Grant Shapps, urged Whitehall to push ahead with the controversial plans in a letter published by the Sunday Telegraph.

Directly contradicting campaigners’ claims, the cross-party group argued that the plans could result in a 9% increase in employment. They added that the world “has fundamentally changed” since the 1994 reforms and said people “rightly expect greater flexibility in all aspects of their lives”.


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