The Government’s consultation on Sunday trading has raised as many questions as it has answered. We assess the implications of the proposals.

Confusion reigns among retailers following the release of this morning’s 21-page consultation document.

Here are the key questions raised by the paper and an analysis of whether or not the Government has done enough to provide the answers retailers want.

Who is leading the consultation?

The consultation is being run jointly by the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). That, in itself, appears to have caused some confusion, with no one department or minister taking the lead.

Is it clear who will be getting power to decide Sunday trading hours?

This forms the heart of the Government’s consultation. The DCLG has said that powers could be devolved to local areas, for example, to metro mayors, through ‘devolution deals’, or more generally to local authorities across England and Wales. The consultation is asking for feedback on which would be the preferred option.

A third scenario is a combination of both, which could lead to some confusion. A situation could potentially arise whereby the Mayor of London Boris Johnson is overruling decisions taken by councils in the 32 boroughs. But communities minister Brandon Lewis said this would be “fleshed out” as part of the consultation, with powers devolved to “one or the other.”

Is there a chance these powers won’t be devolved after all?

Apparently, yes. Despite the fanfare surrounding the announcement during Chancellor George Osborne’s Budget in July, a DCLG spokeswoman said there is still a chance the powers may not be devolved at all, depending on the feedback received during the consultation period.

Question two in the consultation begins: “If the power is devolved…” opening the door for no devolution to take place. But the DCLG spokeswoman reaffirmed its keenness to hand powers to local authorities or mayors, adding: “We believe local areas are best-placed to determine the right approach.”

Iceland boss Malcolm Walker is among the retail chiefs leading the calls for central government to set powers themselves. He said: “A national solution is what we want rather than devolving powers to local authorities and local mayors because you just get into a bugger’s muddle. With one national solution you know where you are, otherwise it just gets bloody complicated.”  

If power is devolved, who or what will dictate the decision-making process?

The British Retail Consortium wants a framework to be introduced so that all local authorities or elected mayors are singing from the same hymn sheet when it comes to deciding which retailers can open for longer.

At present, that does not exist and it is unclear whether it ever will. Local authorities could therefore use different criteria when deciding how to implement the devolved powers.

Is there any evidence to suggest high streets will be favoured over out-of-town retail parks and supermarkets?

If you read into quotes from Conservative MP Lewis, the answer is ‘yes’. He said the moves were a way to “boost the Great British high street” by giving local areas a way to “encourage shoppers to the town centre”. Lewis added local authorities could see additional Sunday trading hours for high street retailers as way to restore “balance” after they suffered dips in footfall and trade at the hands on online competitiors.

In that sense, footfall into town and city centres could certainly be driven by allowing them to stay open for longer than retail parks.

The DCLG said that, under the proposals, local authorities could “zone” their areas, deciding which specific parts of their region would benefit from longer hours, rather than a one-size-fits-all model for all retailers operating within their constituency.

To what extent would these changes benefit the economy?   

The Government said that extending Sunday trading rules would “result in benefits equivalent to £1.4bn per year”. However, that figure is based on research published in May 2006, before high streets started to suffer amid the ecommerce shopping boom. The BRC has called for a new “impact assessment” to be carried out in order to better understand the financial benefits.

The Association of Convenience Stores has hit out at other out-of-date statistics referenced in the consultation. The Government said that 15% of shoppers would visit supermarkets later on a Sunday, but this was based on ONS figures from 2005.

The ACS also slammed statistics that suggested consumer spend would increase by 12.5% following deregulation. That sales change represented the increase experienced by a country that had no Sunday opening hours at all, rather than moving from limited trading to extended hours, as England would be doing.

The sales change in the UK is estimated be much lower at 0.14%, the ACS said.