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Weekend summit call as Belfast Sunday trading hours extension rejected

By Jonny Bell

Independent retailers have called for a "weekend summit" to discuss boosting trade and tourism after a plan to allow large shops in Belfast to open on a Sunday for longer was rejected by city councillors.

Shops bigger than the size of a tennis court can only open between 1pm and 6pm every Sunday. A plan by the council to designate the city as a "holiday resort" meant that all shops could have opened longer for 18 Sundays between March and September.

A consultation exercise received over 2,000 responses with 60% in favour of the change. However, independent retailers and shop workers rejected the proposal.

On Friday the council's policy and resources committee rejected the motion. The committee voted 12-3 against the motion with Sinn Fein, the DUP, SDLP all against. Alliance and suspended SDLP councillor Pat Convery voted in favour with the PUP's Billy Hutchinson abstaining.

That decision will have to be ratified by the full council at the new monthly meeting at the beginning of June. However, given the major parties on the council are opposed to the move it would be unlikely there would be a change.

A protest was held outside city hall ahead of Friday's meeting.

Belfast City Council said the proposal was brought about in response to a "strong lobby" within the city, primarily from Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce, as a means of improving Belfast’s tourism offering, boosting the local economy and supporting the city centre’s regeneration.

The current law states that shops over three thousand square feet can only open from 1pm.

Retail NI, which represents small business, welcomed the decision.  Retail NI chief executive Glyn Roberts attended the meeting and urged the committee not to approve the proposal. He called for a "weekend summit" to come up with a strategy on boosting trade on Saturdays and Sundays.

"This would have given a further unfair competitive advantage to large supermarkets and disadvantaged local small shops, whose Sunday morning trade is vital for their survival," he said.

"It puts down an important marker to the other 10 councils not to consider relaxing Sunday trading through the backdoor of Resort Status."

He added: "At the Committee this morning, we recommended that Lord Mayor immediately convene a ‘Weekend Summit’ to include Retail NI, Belfast Chamber of Commerce, USDAW and other interested groups to agree a strategy to improve the retail and hospitality offer in Belfast at the weekend for tourists and shoppers.

"Belfast has a fantastic retail and hospitality offer, but we need to look at how the city can make further improvements to improve the visitor experience."

“Doing more to promote our world class independent retailers and enhancing cafe culture are ideas Retail NI is keen to promote."

“We have written to Belfast City Council chief executive to host this summit as soon as possible and agree a strategy to ensure this summer is the best yet for shoppers and tourists."

Trade union Usdaw described the decision as a "victory" for local workers.

Paddy Lillis, Usdaw’s Deputy General Secretary said: "This is the right decision for Belfast and we will now continue to make our case to all councillors ahead of them voting on the committee’s recommendation. The current Sunday trading arrangements are a fair compromise, which has worked well for 20 years, and gives everyone a little bit of what they want. 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.

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