The chancellor outlined clear growth measures to boost foreign investment in London, but missed an opportunity on Wednesday to unlock more spending from the millions of international visitors who come to our capital each year.
London is the envy of other cities thanks to our flagship retail, innovative leisure outlets and world-class restaurants. However, unlike other cities around the world trying to attract tourists and international visitors, London shops are only allowed to open for six hours on Sundays due to legislation introduced nearly thirty years ago.
We were disappointed that the Chancellor did not respond in his spring budget this week to our requests to add London’s international centers to the Sunday Trading Act’s list of exemptions.
Shopping destinations in New York, Dubai, Milan and Madrid all enjoy longer opening hours on Sundays. Sunday trading laws have also been relaxed in some tourist spots in Paris. The West End is defined as an international center in the Mayor’s London Plan. This status should be more than just a geographic boundary, it should also come with planning and licensing benefits that allow the West End to compete more effectively on the global stage. We are not calling for the Sunday Trading Laws to change across the UK, but we believe the cause for international centers is clear and strong.
VisitBritain estimates that over 25% of the £28.4bn international visitors spend a year is on shopping, much of it in the West End. And we know that Sundays are the busiest shopping day of the week in the entire district if the data are examined based on the number of visitors per trading hour: 65% more than the weekly average. Yet visitors are asked to vacate the shops at 6pm, in stark contrast to the 8pm Galeries Lafayette in Paris or the overnight closure of the Mall of the Emirates in Dubai.
London enjoyed a good start to the year despite the adversity. Our road to recovery has already been shaped by its fair share of challenges, such as the Chancellor’s decision to reverse the reintroduction of tax-free shopping for international visitors. This is another factor that puts the UK at a huge competitive disadvantage compared to other global shopping destinations.
The really vexing aspect of this decision is that it was based on inaccurate and incomplete information. Last year’s report by the Association of International Retail and Oxford Economics found that, far from costing £2bn a year as estimated by the Treasury, tax-free shopping would actually translate into a £350m net benefit by attracting more tourists and helping to support 78,000 jobs not just in the West End, but across the UK.
To get a truly accurate picture of how the West End is doing, we have to compare our success with that of other European cities. Simply put, rival European cities like Milan and Paris are recovering faster from the pandemic and economic challenges because international visitors can shop for longer while enjoying a 20% discount on tax-free purchases.
The latest data from Global Blue released this week confirms that we are lagging behind. While spending by our visitors from the US and GCC Gulf countries looks positive relative to 2019 levels – 101% and 65% respectively of pre-pandemic spending – our mainland cousins see much higher numbers. In France, visitors from the United States are spending 226% compared to pre-pandemic levels, while GCC visitor spending is 198% compared to 2019.
At a time when the government is trying to implement measures to put the UK on a path of economic growth, liberalizing Sunday trading in the West End would do so without costing the Treasury a penny.
Our research indicates it would deliver an additional £340 million of net sales annually, whilst also supporting 2,000 full-time equivalent jobs. The time has come for the Chancellor and Government to open their minds to the full opportunity to end early Sunday closures in our International Centres.
Dee Corsi is the managing director of the New West End Company