Local authority chiefs are to be given the power to relax Sunday trading laws restricting the opening hours of large stores in their areas under new Government proposals.
Councils in England and Wales will be given the choice of whether they want to ease the current rules limiting shops with over 280 sq m (3,000 sq ft) floorspace to six hours opening on a Sunday.
Ministers are reported to be writing to the Church of England urging it not to oppose the measures which they argue could be worth up to £1.4 billion a year to the economy while ensuring high streets remain the “heartbeat of our communities”.
Under the plans, set out in a Government consultation paper, authorities would have the discretion to decide whether to apply the new conditions throughout the whole of their area or limit them to specific zones where they want to encourage business.
Potentially, it could mean councils allowing longer Sunday trading in traditional high streets while excluding out-of-town supermarkets.
Communities minister Brandon Lewis said: “This Government is determined to devolve powers previously held in Whitehall to local people.
“We have already taken a range of measures to boost the Great British high street and now we are giving local areas another tool to encourage shoppers to the town centre and get shops to grow and thrive.”
It is a point he will emphasise in a letter to the Church of England bishops, according to the Daily Telegraph.
The paper said he will tell bishops: “The Government has been determined to revive our nation’s high streets to ensure they remain the heartbeat of our communities for decades to come. High streets provide the social, cultural and essential services so many local people enjoy and rely on.”
Under the plans, local government leaders such as elected metro mayors could be given the right to extend Sunday trading hours in their area through individual “devolution deals” which will see a range of powers handed down from Whitehall.
Alternatively the Government could act to enable all local authorities in England and Wales power to ease restrictions in their area.
The publication of the consultation paper comes after Chancellor George Osborne signalled the Government’s intention to overhaul the existing law, which dates back to 1994, in last month’s Budget.
However the proposals were strongly criticised by the shopworkers’ union Usdaw, which argued the current system was working well and did not need to change.
“The Sunday Trading Act is a great British compromise, which has worked well for over 20 years and gives everyone a little bit of what they want,” said union general secretary John Hannett.
“Retailers can trade, customers can shop, staff can work whilst Sunday remains a special day, different to other days, and shopworkers can spend some time with their family.”