The Chancellor has outlined clear growth measures to boost foreign investment in London but on Wednesday missed an opportunity to attract more spending from the millions of international visitors who flock to our capital every year.
London is the envy of other cities thanks to our flagship retail stores, innovative leisure facilities and world-class restaurants. Unlike other world cities looking to attract tourists and international visitors, laws introduced almost three decades ago restrict London shops to only being open for six hours on Sundays.
We were disappointed that the Chancellor failed to respond to our calls for London’s International Centers to be included in the list of exceptions to the Sunday Trading Act in his spring budget this week.
Shopping destinations in New York, Dubai, Milan and Madrid enjoy longer trading hours on Sundays. Sunday selling laws have also been relaxed in certain Paris tourist hotspots. The West End is defined as an international center in the Mayor’s London plan. More than just a geographic boundary, this status should also come with planning and licensing benefits that will allow the West End to compete more effectively on the global stage. We are not calling for changes to Sunday trading laws across the UK, but we believe the case for international centers is clear and strong.
VisitBritain estimates that over 25% of the £28.4 billion international visitors spend each year is spent on shopping, with a large proportion of this 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 data by footfall per trading hour — 65% busier than the weekly average. However, visitors are being asked to leave the shops by 6pm – a stark contrast to Paris’s Galeries Lafayette at 8pm or Dubai’s Mall of the Emirates closing at midnight.
Against all odds, London has had a strong start to the year. Our road to recovery has already been marked by numerous challenges, such as the Chancellor’s decision to overturn 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 annoying aspect of this decision is that it was based on inaccurate and incomplete information. Last year’s Association of International Retail and Oxford Economics report found that tax-free shopping, far from costing £2billion a year as the Treasury estimated, would actually result in a net profit of £350million by attracting more tourists attracting and supporting 78,000 jobs not just in the West End but across the UK.
To get a really accurate picture of how the West End is doing, we need to compare our success to other European cities. Put simply, rival European cities like Milan and Paris are recovering faster from the pandemic and economic challenges because international visitors can shop longer while benefiting from a 20 percent tax-free shopping discount.
Global Blue’s latest figures, released this week, confirm that we are falling behind. While spending by our US and Gulf GCC visitors looks positive compared to 2019 levels – 101% and 65% of pre-pandemic spending respectively – our continental cousins are seeing far higher numbers. In France, US visitors spend 226% of pre-pandemic spending, while GCC visitors spend 198% of 2019 spending.
At a time when the Government is looking to take action that puts 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 shows it would deliver incremental net sales of £340m per year while supporting 2,000 full-time jobs. It is high time for the Chancellor and the Government to open up to the possibility of ending the early Sunday closures in our International Centres.
Dee Corsi is the managing director of the New West End Company