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Shop staff delighted as councillors rule out longer Sunday trade hours

By Jonny Bell

A plan to extend trading hours on certain Sundays in Belfast has been rejected by city councillors.

Shops bigger than the size of a tennis court can currently open only between 1pm and 6pm every Sunday.

A plan to designate the city as a "holiday resort" would have meant that all shops could have opened longer on 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.

Yesterday, the council's policy and resources committee also rejected the motion.

The committee voted 12-3 against the proposal, with Sinn Fein, the DUP and SDLP all against it.

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 next monthly meeting before it becomes council policy.

However, given that the major parties on the council are opposed to the move, it is unlikely there will be a change.

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.

It's chief executive, Glyn Roberts, attended yesterday's 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 back door 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."

The Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers (Usdaw) said its members were absolutely opposed to extended Sunday trading. John Hannett, Usdaw general secretary, said Sunday should remain a special day.

"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," he added. "Retailers can trade, customers can shop, staff can work; whilst Sunday remains a special day, different to other days, and shop workers can spend some time with their family."

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