12 December 2022

Time to throw Sunday trading laws on the scrapheap


Sunday Bloody Sunday really encapsulates the frustration of a Sunday – you wake up in the morning, you’ve got to read all the Sunday papers, the kids are running around, you’ve got to mow the lawn, wash the car, and you think ‘Sunday, bloody Sunday!’.’

Now, Alan Partridge’s attempts to bond with two Irish TV producers was obviously wrong and insensitive, but he was on to something about the frustrations of a Sunday for the average punter. Not because of domestic chores, so much as the outdated inconvenience of Sunday trading laws.

For those of my readers who are lucky enough to not live in England or Wales, the law states that on a Sunday small shops can open as long as they like but shops over 280 square metres can only open for six consecutive hours between 10am and 6pm.

This is deeply inconvenient for shoppers, especially if their local store is a large supermarket. It means they might have to travel longer or take a diversion on their way home if they want to grab something for their tea.

But it’s more than simply a but of a pain. Restrictive trading laws can also exacerbate the cost of living crisis. For example, the price of items is often cheaper in larger supermarkets than in their smaller equivalents or corner shops. It might not make a huge difference, but given the times we’re in, every little really does help.

It’s not just bad for consumers, it is also bad for workers. Again, given the cost of living crisis, many people are trying to work as much as possible just to pay their bills and put food on the table. Only being able to work limited hours on a Sunday means they obviously have less earning potential in a given week.

Businesses should be free to open as they like on a Sunday and workers should be free to work for as long as they like. As long as people are not being exploited, it really is none of the state’s business.

The arguments against scrapping Sunday trading laws really don’t hold much weight. Some claim that we should try and keep Sunday special so that families can spend more time together. But there is nothing stopping people from spending time with each other on other days and they might actually have more time throughout the week if they don’t have to work longer hours on other days to make up for the loss of income on Sundays.

Another argument is that the current system allows people to attend church. Given the latest census shows we’re no longer a majority Christian country, shaping rules for businesses around church services feels anachronistic at best. And even if you are a committed parishioner, many churches offer services at various times of day anyway. It is also unfair to people of other faiths or none who might want to have another day off instead.

Sunday trading laws are just one of the bureaucratic issues plaguing  businesses. In some parts of the country rules around opening hours for the rest of the week are often a nonsense. For example, in areas such as Soho in central London, it is almost impossible to find a bar or club that is open past 11pm most nights of the week. The same goes for restaurants.

Moreover, there are rules about where people can be served. Again, to use Soho as an example, it was pedestrianised which brought huge benefits for businesses, workers, and consumers. Unfortunately, the local council gave the streets back to cars.

As so often, it’s Nimbys who are to blame. Often rich and older home owners who have chosen to live in the middle of a major city and yet complain about the noise. As with housing, they kick up a fuss and game the system, effectively bullying spineless councillors to cave in to their demands.

We should scrap Sunday trading laws and take licensing powers away from local authorities so that businesses can stay open as long as they like and the area around them pedestrianised. Doing so would be good for people (especially the young), good for businesses, and good for workers.

This piece originally appeared on the Opportunity Lost Substack.

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Ben Ramanauskas is a research economist at Oxford University.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.