and potentially puts new investment in retail at risk.
The government's 'Consultation on devolving Sunday trading rules' has been published this morning.
The paper quotes from a study that suggests that there could be a benefit of £1.4 billion a year from removing the existing restrictions across England and Wales. The consultation does not however suggest a blanket removal, but instead suggests that the power should be devolved to local areas. The actual financial benefit of the proposal is therefore largely unknown.
The first option suggested by the paper is that powers should be devolved 'to local leaders, for example metro mayors, through devolution deals.'
It is unclear exactly who these leaders are, but current proposals for metro mayors appear to cover only large conurbations. Devolving powers in this way would appear on the face of it to leave the majority of England and Wales without a choice over Sunday opening hours and to be focussing the benefits towards towns and cities and away from rural areas.
The second option suggested is that powers should be devolved to local authorities.
In either option the devolved powers will be capable of being applied to specific zones and 'potentially exclude out of town supermarkets'.
It seems to us that there is a fundamental flaw in the thinking behind either of these options in that no consideration has been given to the effect of local boundaries and the effect that different approaches from different local authorities or leaders might have on transport, travel and road congestion.
For instance, if the Wiltshire local authority were to decide, broadly, not to relax Sunday opening hours but surrounding cities such as Swindon, Bristol, Southampton did then it is likely that significantly more journeys would be made over greater distances on Sundays than is currently the case.
We are not sure that would be beneficial.
As well as the transport issues there are site by site cost and value issues to contend with. If, as the consultation suggests, the benefit
'is generated from lower prices as a result of increased efficiency from shops being able to make more use of existing stores'
then it follows that stores that are able to open for longer on a Sunday will be more valuable to retailers. They will therefore theoretically be willing to pay a higher rent leading to a higher capital value.
However if the restrictions can be added or removed at a local level can a retailer or landlord ever be certain about that enhanced value?
Although we accept that, to quote the consultation paper 'Extending Sunday trading hours would ..... support competition and drive economic growth' we take issue with the words 'across the country' that follow. In fact the proposed restrictions would benefit certain areas of the country and not others and rather than supporting competition would be more likely to skew it.
As it happens, we do not have a strong view as to whether the restrictions should be relaxed, but it does seem to us that, if there is an economic benefit to be gained which the government wishes to realise, then it would make sense to capture that for the whole of England and Wales and not just selected parts.