Shopworkers’ union Usdaw has warned that “longer opening hours will not fix the crisis on our high streets” in response to a government decision to allow retail businesses to open 24 hours a day over the Christmas period.
Responding to a written ministerial statement from government minister Robert Jenrick today, general secretary Paddy Lillis described the measure as “insignificant compared to the substantial issues the retail industry faces”.
The comments from the retail union leader follow the government announcement that local authorities should not “undertake planning enforcement action which would result in the unnecessary restriction of retail hours” in December and January.
Commenting on the statement, Lillis said: “The government’s announcement does not address the potential concerns of retail workers. They are already going to be extremely busy in the run-up to Christmas after a four-week lockdown.
“We are urging employers to safeguard staff welfare, ensure they are not overstretched and fulfil the extra hours with volunteers or through recruitment. We also call on shoppers to follow the rules, be patient, but most of all ‘keep your cool’ and respect shopworkers.”
Jenrick argued today that the government has worked with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and Public Health England to plan for a “safe and successful reopening of non-essential retail on 2nd December”.
But Lillis has this afternoon called for the government to work with unions and business. He said: “What retail needs is a tripartite approach of unions, employers and government working together to develop a recovery plan.
“We have long called for an industrial strategy for retail to help a sector that was already struggling before the coronavirus emergency.
“Government needs to level the playing field on taxation between online and the high street, reform business rates that are strangling so many businesses, as well as enabling councils to breathe new life into town centres and make them community hubs.
“We have a choice here. Do we want to see the high street go to the wall, or do we want to save it? Retail is an important feature of our towns and cities, it employs three million people across the UK and we need a recovery plan to get the industry back on its feet.”
Restrictions on shop opening hours on weekday and Saturdays were removed by section 23 of the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994. But many retailers remain subject to local controls through planning conditions.
Jenrick told councils that they should take a “positive approach to their engagement with retailers to ensure planning controls are not a barrier to the temporary extension of retail opening times” over the next two months.
He also urged that local authorities “highlight this temporary relaxation” to businesses in their areas so that traders can take advantage of the longer opening hours after the national lockdown across England lifts on December 2nd.
Since the release of the statement, Primark has been among the first high street businesses to announce that it will take advantage of the relaxed trading hours with plans to open 11 of its stores 24 hours a day.
Chief executive of UK Hospitality Kate Nicholls described the provisions for retail as “arbitrary and unfair” and claimed that the government had picked hospitality as the “primary tool for controlling transmission with very limited evidence”.