The Chancellor has outlined clear growth measures to boost overseas investment into London, but missed the opportunity on Wednesday to unlock greater spending from the millions of international visitors that arrive in 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 world cities that seek to attract tourists and international visitors, London’s stores can only open for six hours on a Sunday due to legislation that was introduced nearly three decades ago.
We were disappointed that the Chancellor failed to respond in his Spring Budget this week to our calls to add London’s International Centres to the list of Sunday Trading Act exemptions.
Shopping destinations in New York, Dubai, Milan and Madrid, all enjoy longer trading hours on a Sunday. Sunday trading laws have also been relaxed in certain Paris tourist hotspots. The West End is defined as an International Centre in the Mayor’s London Plan. This status should be more than just a geographical boundary, it should also come with planning and licensing benefits that allows the West End to compete more effectively on the global stage. We are not asking for Sunday Trading Laws to change across the UK, but we believe the case for International Centres is clear and strong.
VisitBritain estimates that over 25% of the £28.4 billion international visitors spend per year is on shopping, with a large proportion of that taking place in the West End. And we know that Sunday is the busiest shopping day of the week across the district when looking at the data by footfall per trading hour – 65% busier than the weekly average. Yet visitors are asked to leave the shops at 6pm – a stark contrast to the 8pm of Galeries Lafayette in Paris or midnight closing of Mall of the Emirates in Dubai.
London has enjoyed a strong start to the year in the face of adversity. Our road to recovery has already been shaped by its fair share of challenges, such as the Chancellor’s decision to overturn the reintroduction of tax-free shopping for international visitors. This is another factor putting the UK at a huge competitive disadvantage to other global shopping destinations.
The truly galling aspect of this decision is that it was based on inaccurate and incomplete information. Last year’s report from the Association of International Retail and Oxford Economics found that, far from costing £2 billion a year to maintain as the Treasury estimated, tax-free shopping would actually result in a net benefit of £350 million by attracting more tourists and helping support 78,000 jobs not just in the West End, but across the UK.
In order to get a truly accurate view of how the West End is faring, we have to benchmark our success against other European cities. Simply put, rival European cities such as Milan and Paris are recovering from the pandemic and economic challenges quicker because international visitors can shop for longer and take advantage of a 20 per cent tax-free shopping discount at the same time.
The latest figures from Global Blue released this week confirm we are falling behind. While spending from our visitors from the USA and GCC Gulf countries are looking positive compared with 2019’s levels – 101% and 65% of pre-pandemic spend respectively – our continental cousins are seeing far higher numbers. In France, visitors from the USA are spending 226% on pre-pandemic levels, while spending from GCC visitors is 198% of that in 2019.
At a time when the Government is looking to implement measures that set the UK on a path of economic growth, liberalising Sunday trading in the West End would do so without costing the Treasury a penny.
Our research indicates that it would deliver an additional £340 million in net sales annually, while supporting 2,000 full-time equivalent jobs. It is high time for the Chancellor and Government to open their minds to the full opportunity of ending early closing on Sundays in our International Centres.
Dee Corsi is chief executive of New West End Company