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Alistair Thompson: Sunday Trading reforms will only benefit the big supermarkets and further disadvantage small businesses

Alistair ThompsonAlistair Thompson was the Conservative candidate for West Bromwich East at the general election. He also runs Media Intelligence Partners with business partner Nick Wood, the former press secretary to Conservative leaders William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith.

Last weekend, Chancellor George Osborne announced his intention to bring in emergency legislation to relax the restrictions on Sunday trading. The move, Mr Osborne stressed, was only a temporary measure for the eight weeks of the Olympics and Paralympics, but there are those who rightly fear that this is only the first step to full deregulation - an assault on the special nature of Sunday and further evidence of an attack on the Judeo-Christian heritage of our country.

There are those who back such a change, including the so called "Giddy Group" (backers of George Osborne). They view plans to deregulate the Sunday trading hours as a "good idea". Their argument is that it might boost the economy in the short term. It might, but only because we shoppers will reach for our flexible friends, piling the pounds on our credit cards, racking up more debt that will have to be paid back over time. And what will we be buying? Cheap imported goods, or impulse purchases - items that we really don’t need, or groceries that we could have bought at almost any other time of the week? 

But those backing the change also argue that this is not the only "benefit". A change in opening hours might allow a better match between the shops and restaurants, creating the shopping experience that seems to be the goal of most retailers. But again, this might happen in purpose-built destination shopping centres, like Gunwharf Quays, or Bicester Village, but is unlikely to happen on the gastronomic deserts to be found on most high streets. So the idea of shopping without limits, any time and anywhere, in retail outlets all over the country is false. And worse than this, any benefit will accrue to the big stores while the small retailer continues to be squeezed.

Small shops, especially those on the high street, or in tertiary retail areas, already struggling under the disproportionate levels of tax and bureaucracy, will be put under even more pressure. Family-run businesses - the things that, as a Tory, I thought we supported - will be forced to choose between staying open, giving up on their one day off a week, or possibly missing out on an important sale. And why do these sales matter? Because at a small retailer level they could mean the difference between making a loss or a profit.

There will be some who will say: so what? Some will say the economically strong should be allowed to finish off the economic minnows, or the plain weak. But Britain’s 8,000-plus supermarkets already account for 85% of the country’s multi-billion grocery market, and the "Big Four" account for 78% of groceries sold in the Britain by themselves.

And while the supermarkets have been powering on, traditional grocery stores have been declining since the 1950s. Then there were around 90,000 butchers and greengrocers. By 2000 this figure had plummeted to fewer than 20,000. The number of bakeries has fared only slightly better declining from around 25,000 to 8,000 over the same period. They have been squeezed out by high rents, high taxes and by councils who see those who drive into town, either as a pariah needing to be taxed off the streets, or as a cash cow needing to be fleeced of all their money, just to park near to the shops.

On this measure, I am definitely not with the Government. Sunday trading should be limited and we all should be profoundly concerned at this latest attempt to force through further deregulation, because it will only benefit the few, and I think Tesco and the other big supermarkets are already doing fine.


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