Shoppers in Tunbridge Wells are split down the middle on the question of extended opening hours on Sundays.
An independent survey shows that only half of those polled in the town back the idea.
Currently shops are only allowed to open on a Sunday for six continual hours between 10am and 6pm. Most open 10am to 4pm.
Plans to allow local authorities to reform ‘archaic’ Sunday trading hours are currently going through Parliament as part of the Government’s Enterprise Bill.
The measure, which will give local authorities the power to zone trading hours in order to boost footfall in high streets and town centres, was ‘welcomed’ by Tunbridge Wells Borough Council.
However, it acknowledged there are ‘mixed opinions’ on the subject, after a council survey found opinion is divided, with 52 per cent backing the proposal.
Councillor Jane March, cabinet member for economic development, said the findings were ‘very important’ for the council.
She added: “The results would inform any debate on the matter, but clearly more discussion is needed with retail and business groups before we can make any decision about whether opening hours in the borough need to change.”
Public opinion in Tunbridge Wells is at odds with a survey conducted by polling firm ComRes on behalf of consumer group Open Sundays, which found 67 per cent of people nationally are in favour of reform.
A spokesman for Open Sundays said: “We are delighted that the archaic Sunday trading laws are being reformed.
“We would have preferred to have seen a full national liberalisation of opening hours, but this is a welcome first step and a boost for freedom.
“We would like to see Tunbridge Wells Borough Council use these powers, when granted, to allow people to shop where they want and when they want to stop this archaic restriction on our freedom.”
But John Hannett, General Secretary of the retail workers’ union Usdaw, claimed the Government risked undermining a ‘Great British compromise’ in its pursuit of longer opening hours. He said: “Local shop workers are very concerned about Government plans to devolve Sunday trading hours to councils and the effects that will have on family life, local shops and the community.
“The change could lead to large shops opening for longer, even though they are already trading for up to 150 out of 168 hours a week, so shop workers will have even less time to spend with their families.
“It won’t help small stores, who are already allowed to open whenever they like, and may put some of them out of business.”
Mr Hannett said the current Sunday trading laws were a good compromise which gave everyone a ‘little bit of what they want’.
He added: “This is a solution looking for a problem that doesn’t exist. It isn’t even clear who is actually calling for this change, with many retailers opposing it.”
His views on the impact on family life were echoed by Father Cliff Allen, head of Churches Tunbridge Wells.
Father Allen said: “I think family life and times of rest are important and expanding hours could easily eat into that.
“With retailers being able to open later anyway, and with online shopping allowing it to occur 24 hours a day, I question the need for the change.”
The Right Reverend James Langstaff, Bishop of Rochester, whose diocese incorporates Tunbridge Wells, said: “I concur with the view of the national Church of England which is that we wish to protect people’s ability to spend time with their families and friends and in leisure pursuits. We also are concerned about the pressure which may be placed on shopworkers to work on Sundays. Our position is not simply to protect churchgoing, but rather out of a wider concern for the good of society.”
The Government’s Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, said: “We are a One Nation Government and we want to see the benefits of economic growth being felt in every corner of the country.
“These new powers are about giving local areas the choice to extend Sunday trading hours to meet the needs of their local businesses and communities. It is local people who will make the decision.”
Nicky Blanchard, co-founder of Royal Tunbridge Wells Together, said: “What is really important about these proposals is that they give local people the opportunity to have their say on whether they want to see trading hours on Sunday change. With Royal Tunbridge Wells Together, town centre retailers and businesses now have a voice and we look forward to taking part in that debate. As more details emerge we will be talking to our members and canvassing a range of views.”
A spokesman for the Department for Business Innovation and Skills, which is responsible for the Enterprise Bill, said: “New powers to devolve Sunday trading laws to local authorities will allow councils to zone any relaxation so they will be able to prioritise high streets and city centres. This will mean councils can help drive footfall to struggling high streets by allowing them to open longer.
“The measures also include greater freedoms for shop workers to opt-out of working Sundays if they choose to, for example because they object on religious grounds or for family reasons.
“Shopworkers will now be able to give just one month’s notice to large shops that they no longer want to work on Sundays, down from the previous three months, and will have a new right to opt out of working additional hours. The Government will also strengthen the duty on employers to notify employees of their rights about working on Sundays.”