Liberalisation of Sunday trading hours in England and Wales is a debate that has often polarised opinion, but the consumer knows best.

Relaxation of Sunday trading rules two decades ago was one of the retail industry’s great campaign victories.

But today, as Chancellor George Osborne considers further easing restrictions, the issue has become more nuanced.

While Sunday trading laws still bring out pro and anti-lobbyists in force, the world has moved on and the traditional terms of the discussion look dated.

That is why it’s notable that many retail chiefs have reacted with something approaching a shrug of the shoulders.

The fact is that most big retailers are already trading 24/7 on Sundays through their websites.

For some therefore, the necessity of opening a store for longer on Sundays is not the pressing issue it once might have been.

Others wonder whether longer hours would simply spread out consumer spending and whether takings through the tills would outweigh the costs of extended opening.

Modern shopping habits

That said, the Sunday trading rules as they stand fly in the face of the habits of modern life.

Every Sunday people take trains and buses, visit restaurants and galleries and shop – whether in small stores where hours are unrestricted or big ones where they are.

“Retailers should, if they wish, be free to open as they please”

Chris Brook-Carter

And in Scotland there are no restrictions on large shops’ trading hours.

So retailers should, if they wish, be free to open as they please.

Under Osborne’s proposals, decisions about Sunday hours would be in the gift of elected mayors and local authorities.

While that might add complexity for retailers because of a lack of nationwide consistency, the hope must be that good decisions are taken in the interests of consumers and local economies.

There may be places where it makes little sense for big retailers to open for longer. But there are locations where extended hours could bring reinvigoration and boost spend.

Boost to London

Take London’s West End, where the existing situation has been a longstanding source of intense frustration to Selfridges and other retailers.

They are forced to shut their doors even as the streets throng with people who would come in and shop given half the chance.

An extra two hours trading on Sunday would boost central London trade by £260m a year and create about 2,000 more full-time jobs, according to business organisation the New West End Company.

A similar effect would doubtless be seen in other places too. So let the people shop.

This time around however, unlike in 1994, there will be no one-size-fits-all solution for big store groups.

Waitrose managing director Mark Price told Retail Week that his business is “neither pushing for, nor resisting” change.

Keen to take advantage of the opportunity he certainly sees to generate extra trade but conscious of costs too, he probably speaks for many retailers.

Pragmatism will be the order of the day as retailers weigh up their options should liberalisation go ahead.