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Retail Opening Hours: Christmas and Covid-19

Volume 685: debated on Monday 30 November 2020

I wish to update the House on relaxing local restrictions to enable retail opening hours to be extended in England for Christmas.

On Monday 23 November, the Government published their covid-19 winter plan which will see the return to a regional tier approach to restrictions in England from 2 December. In all tiers, shops will be allowed to reopen, giving people the opportunity to shop for gifts for family and friends in the run up to Christmas. The Government recognise the efforts and investment that retailers have made to ensure their premises are covid-secure; this has been reflected by the fact that the best available Public Health England and NHS Track and Trace data shows there is at present no evidence of significant increased risk of virus transmission in retail premises. Government asked non-essential retailers to close as part of wider restrictions to limit social mixing in November, once those restrictions have been lifted consumers and retail staff can have confidence to return to our high streets.

We have been working closely with senior representatives from the retail sector, local authorities, 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 2 December. To ensure the reopening of shops is safe and in line with social distancing rules given the high volume of shoppers expected before Christmas and the subsequent sales in January, the Government want to see retailers given the option to extend their daily opening hours from Monday to Saturday. This will help to spread footfall, ease transport pressures and make shopping in a socially distanced way easier by giving shoppers greater flexibility to choose when they shop and avoid peak times.

Restrictions on shop opening hours on weekday and Saturdays were removed by section 23 of the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994. However, many retailers are subject to local controls through planning conditions which restrict opening times, particularly in the early morning, evening and at night, to make the development acceptable to local residents who might otherwise suffer from noise and other local amenity issues.

Given the exceptional circumstances as a result of the coronavirus, the purpose of this written ministerial statement, which comes into effect from 2 December, is to make clear that, as a matter of urgency, local planning authorities 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 in December and January.

In particular, local planning authorities, having regard to their legal obligations, should not seek to undertake planning enforcement action which would result in the unnecessary restriction of retail hours during this period. The national planning policy framework already emphasises that planning enforcement is a discretionary activity, and local planning authorities should act proportionately in responding to suspected breaches of planning control.

Where appropriate, local planning authorities should also highlight this temporary relaxation to retailers in their area so that they can take advantage of longer opening hours if they wish to do so.

The Government recognise that longer retail opening hours could have a temporary impact on local residents, but this needs to be balanced by the significant public interest in ensuring there is a safe retail environment during this busy period; in helping local residents undertake Christmas shopping given many shops have been closed over the last month; and in supporting the commercial viability of local shops in England’s high streets and town centres during this challenging period.

This written ministerial statement also confirms that my previous statement to the House of 13 March 2020 about planning enforcement and the delivery of food and other essential goods to retailers during the coronavirus pandemic will remain in place until 31 March 2021 because continued flexibility is necessary to ensure access to food and essential goods in light of ongoing impacts of coronavirus. The statement made on 13 March 2020 is withdrawn with effect from the beginning of 1 April 2021, unless circumstances justify its further extension, in which case a further statement would be made to the House.