Scotland’s independent think tank
Scotland’s independent think tank

New Year’s Day Shopping Ban is Illiberal & Short-sighted – David Lonsdale

It has been sixteen enormously difficult and tumultuous months since Scotland entered the first Covid lockdown.

The retail industry has faced some of the toughest restrictions. The majority of Scotland’s shops have been compelled to close twice – for at least 220 days – to aid the national effort against Covid. For those stores in west central Scotland or located in shopping centres and malls the figure is even higher, given local lockdown restrictions imposed last November and December and the lengthier lockdown for shopping malls last summer.

Even now, with stores permitted to open, shopper footfall is down by almost a third and shop vacancies are at a six-year high and climbing. Overall, the Scottish Retail Consortium (SRC) estimates that shops in Scotland have lost out on £4.5 billion of retail sales since the onset of the pandemic.

The situation is improving; however, shops remain unable to trade at capacity due to physical distancing constraints, and the lack of footfall remains particularly acute in our city centres.

Given this backdrop, it is extraordinary and frankly bewildering that Scottish Ministers could even countenance the introduction of a permanent prohibition on shops opening to customers on New Year’s Day. However, that is exactly what is happening with the publication in June of the devolved government’s consultation paper on banning New Year’s Day trading.

Most people I’ve talked to within the industry and business community more generally are flummoxed as to why government is progressing this. Unfortunately, it may be the thin end of the wedge. Those agitating for the trading ban are elsewhere in the UK also seeking the closure of shops on Boxing Day, as well as fresh legislative curbs on trading hours on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. How long would it be before other sectors of the economy are in their sights?

For SRC it boils down to this – where there is demand from customers and the availability of staff then shops ought to be free to choose to open on New Year’s Day if they so wish.

Banning trading permanently on New Year’s Day is illiberal and short-sighted, especially considering customers can already shop online whenever they choose. Indeed, if ever a government proposal epitomised an outdated analogue solution in a digital age this is it.

It is strange shops are being uniquely singled out whilst other consumer-facing businesses such as hotels, restaurants, pubs, petrol stations, and cinemas can carry on. Why is retail being treated differently to these other consumer-facing sectors, or for that matter our public services?

 A permanent prohibition on trading also flies in the face of the strenuous efforts that have made over recent years – prior to Covid – to promote Scotland as a visitor destination at New Year. Are we seriously going to invite the world to come to Scotland for Hogmanay, but then prevent revellers spending their money in our stores the next day?

The economic legacy of Covid will be with us for a considerable period. It will take time for the sector to recover, to repay the various government Covid loan schemes, and to pay down the rent arrears and other debts incurred whilst trading has been halted or curbed. The recovery needs to be helped, not hobbled.

What is needed is a holistic approach from government policy making towards Scotland’s largest private sector employer, not a piecemeal approach exemplified by this proposed trading ban. Ministers have shown admirable support for the sector during the crisis, especially on the business rates waiver and grants. The focus now should be entirely on kick-starting recovery, not closing shops.

David Lonsdale, Director, Scottish Retail Consortium