Battling to keep Sundays special

It's 12 years since large stores won the right to open on Sundays. You'd have thought the Keep Sunday Special campaign would have since packed up and gone home.

It's 12 years since large stores won the right to open on Sundays. You'd have thought the Keep Sunday Special campaign would have since packed up and gone home. Not a bit of it. STEVEN RUSSELL hears about the new battles being fought

IT'S a fair old climb to the top of the Jubilee Centre, nestling among streets of gentrified terrace houses near the centre of Cambridge.

John Alexander and wife Sue chuckle at the thought that their cosy office - room enough for a couple of desks and some shelves - is the nerve centre of Keep Sunday Special. But it is. It echoes the humble beginnings of the organisation in the mid 1980s, when it started life in a garage.

Other people work on the campaign from time to time, but it's the Alexanders who keep it going on a part-time basis - although, as former journalist John points out with a smile, he's well past his retirement date.

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In fact, momentum is picking up again. It's been fuelled by the Department of Trade and Industry's decision to seek views on the pros and cons of liberalising Sunday trading further.

A lobby group called Deregulate, backed by large retailers such as Tesco and Asda, is urging that consumers should be allowed to shop when they want.

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For those still striving to keep Sunday special, it represents a fresh call to arms. This morning, Sue's working on a list of Conservative MPs. Some are known to be against extended hours; others in favour of further liberalisation. KSS needs to identify those who could be persuaded to back the cause.

Campaign manager John is actually feeling more optimistic than last year, when the issue arose again. The DTI consultation exercise that ended on Good Friday had an oddly narrow focus on economic benefits, he says.

“We immediately leapt in and said 'Look, there are other things you must consider - social issues and so on.' And they said 'OK, we will.' The small shops issue came up, and we really did gear up very, very quickly.” So much so that sometimes he found himself working seven days a week.

This very morning he's had a call from the DTI. There's a meeting next week (May 10) at which the findings of the consultation will be revealed; then there's expected to be a second consultation period with wider terms of reference.

He can't see a Bill going before Parliament until next year at the very earliest - and that's assuming the Government wants to add Sunday trading to the list of hot-potatoes it's juggling.

“There's no public pressure for this whatsoever,” he insists. “The only people who are calling for it are the people who want to make more money - those that are just being greedy. We've had no marches on Parliament and people waving banners saying 'We want more opportunity to shop!'”

Consumers have only so much money to spend, he argues. The big boys want to squeeze every last drop and increase their market share by taking trade from convenience stores. “They're losing 2,000 shops a year. The all-party MPs' committee that looked into that said there will be no little shops left by 2015.”

The KSS is adamant that people need one day of rest a week in order to remain mentally and physically healthy, and to maintain good relationships with family and friends - “a day to see Grandma, or do other things that matter on human terms, rather than earning money.

“The thing that's being completely missed now is the importance of families being together at the weekend - having Sunday lunch, going on a picnic, going to the seaside or what. We still think this one day is vital.”

A day off in lieu, in the week, is pretty useless if you have school-age youngsters.

More than of Sunday trading has clearly highlighted the consequences, reckons John.

“Society is breaking down in many ways. Family life is breaking down. Village life is breaking down because of the lack of shops. You've only got to walk into some of these smaller towns to see the white paints on windows, and the charity shops. All the little shops have gradually disappeared. Two months ago Dewhursts packed it in . . .

“People are seeing all those problems now. It wasn't all to do with Sunday trading, of course, but you could say it started from that point. There's evidence to suggest that was the start of the breakdown of the weekend as we know it.”

But surely the public likes Sunday shopping - just look at a B&Q car park. And often families go together, turning a chore into something of a communal leisure experience.

John cites National Opinion Poll surveys commissioned by KSS, such as 71% of people saying they would not be bothered if larger shops closed on Sundays as long as local convenience stores were open; and 87% thought a common day off each week was important for family stability and community life.

“There are so many organisations and people saying 'Enough's enough.' The NOP showed there has been a change of heart. It's not a lost cause.

“Another argument is to look at the European scene. France, Germany, Italy, Spain - wherever you look - they've still got some barrier to keep a day for family life. Why do most countries think it's necessary to have some lid on it, and we want to take the lid off and let it all blow out?

“We've always accepted that some people have got to work on a Sunday - including journalists! - firemen, ambulance crews, doctors. But that doesn't seem to be any reason for extending this to the entire population.

“Look at what's happened to Cambridge - and your town's probably the same. In the old days you could wander along The Backs; there'd be just a few visitors looking around on a Sunday. Now traffic is almost the same. Round the supermarkets there's noise and pollution for the people that live nearby.

“At this stage of the game we ought to be taking a step back and saying 'What do we want in our society at the moment?' We've got so much trouble in inner cities and communities; things have got totally out of hand. And we come back to that point about family relationships.”

But surely competition is wonderful for the consumer? Prices are low, choice wide. Stores are bright and attractive, parking easy.

“Well, there are 10 arguments against that! One is that the freedom to shop ignores the freedom of the people who get sucked in. It's not just the shopworkers; it's the subsidiary things around it - like the lorry drivers having to turn out on a Saturday night. Then there's the family lives of those people called upon to work.”

John bats away suggestions that the campaign's religious connotations might deter potential supporters. You don't need to be a Christian to be worried about the consequences of overwork or children not getting the time and attention they need, he says. “It's just common sense.

“We had a killjoy image at one time, with some people, but I think we've managed to dispel that, largely, and we're pleased about that. It was run by Christians, but it was never 'a Christian campaign' -secular trade unions and trade associations were involved. The press still use the term 'Christian organisation', and we can't stop that. We don't worry about it, either, except that it's restrictive in a sense when we're trying to get a wider message out.”

Doesn't it seem a fruitless task, lined up against the lobbying strength of major stores, and with a Government that appears keen to listen to big business?

“This is why we need a coalition - and why it's working at the moment: because we've got one.” Supporters include the Association of Convenience Stores.

“At the end of the day, you've got to get the support of MPs. It's they who tamper with the law, or decide to leave it alone.

“If you think we lost the vote by only 18 in '94, and if we're right in that the tide is changing, and if it's a free vote, I think there would be great difficulty in getting any change to Sunday opening.”

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JOHN Alexander thought he'd be with the Keep Sunday Special campaign a matter of months. Fifteen or so years on, he's still there.

He worked as a journalist for papers such as the Cambridge Evening News. In the early 1990s he arrived at KSS to help raise funds.

“I'd just become a Christian and was in PR - which I didn't enjoy, because I was still a journalist at heart. I heard there was a job going here. They took me on and I think Mike said 'You'll probably be here only 18 months.' I'm still here in 2006!”

Mike was Dr Michael Schluter, who began KSS in 1985 and is still its chairman. With the narrow go-ahead in 1994 for Sunday trading, Mike started devoting more time to other social reform ideas that sought to apply biblical teaching to everyday life.

Today, says John, there are about 10 projects under the umbrella of the Jubilee Centre. Citylife, for instance, exhorts the idea of an employment bond: a zero-interest loan in which money is invested in local regeneration and employment schemes.

In the wake of the 1994 defeat, John worked on other projects and KSS began to run down somewhat.

“We'd had committees all over the country and 13 people working down there” - on another floor in the building. “But the minute that Act was passed, top supporters like John Lewis said 'Sorry chaps, but we'll just have to do as our competitors.'

“We'd had a budget of about £700,000 a year - mainly from supporters like Etam, Greggs the bakers. Suddenly we were down to our core supporters. It seemed as though the battle was lost. Then all these calls started coming in.”

People started to see what Sunday trading meant in practice, he says. Workers were worried about pressure to work Sundays, and the opt-out clause in the legislation didn't seem, in practice, to be much help.

John found himself “sliding back into the job again. We're now getting back to a position where we've got people from all over the country coming to us for information”.

He says KSS never opposed small shops opening on a Sunday, and says he'll buy a paper and perhaps petrol himself. But you won't find him leaving Tesco with a laden trolley. “The Daily Mirror would love it if they got a photograph of me doing that, wouldn't they?” he chuckles.

MORE than 235 MPs, 145 from Labour, have signed an Early Day Motion on Sunday trading. Among the signatories are East Anglian MPs Simon Burns and Bob Russell.

The motion states “That this House cherishes the importance of Sundays as a collective day of rest and worship and as a day for families to spend together”.

It goes on to argue “that 150 hours per week is enough for anyone to do their shopping; and believes that any extension of Sunday trading hours of large stores would have a serious impact on neighbourhood and community stores and would lead to job losses in this sector and a deterioration in local services”.

Early Day Motions are generally used as a device by which MPs can put their opinions on the record and canvass support from fellow members.

A Tesco spokesman said it was customer preference that was prompting stores to seek longer opening hours, with Sundays proving busy. Greed wasn't the motivation.

“It is right that Sunday trading hours be looked into as customer lifestyles have changed and we find that customers want to do more at weekends, including supermarket shopping.

“We want to be able to deliver the best service for customers, and more flexible opening hours would give our customers more choice of when they are able to shop.”

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