sunday trading hours
Do we really need huge supermarkets open on a Sunday night when small local stores come into their own?iStock

If you ask people whether they want more of something, they usually say yes. If you offer change based on a careful assessment of costs and benefits, their responses are more complex. Given the chance, most people weigh personal advantages against social benefits – what is good for me, now, and what may be good for us all, in the long term.

Sunday shopping is often presented as the first sort of question – if shopping is good, why not have more of it? In reality, it is one of the complex questions where social goods and long-term effects should not be discounted.

I work for the Church of England, which has a track record of arguing against longer Sunday Trading hours. We would, wouldn't we? But churches are not simply defending their own interests. We open our churches – and people use them – every day of the week. But "going to church" is more than a solitary choice, it is about doing something regularly, in company with others. In that respect, the churches are on a par with thousands of other voluntary groups where people come together with family and friends. Think of amateur sport. Think of community action. Think, even, of family visits to Granny. If you can't rely on one day when most people can count on being free, how do these things happen?

Now that the SNP has decided to oppose moves to deregulate Sunday shopping hours because it would have an adverse effect on wages in Scottish shops, it seems unlikely that we will see the expected amendment to the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill that had been promised in coming days. The parliamentary arithmetic was always going to be tricky for the government, not least because, during the election, David Cameron had assured the electorate that the Conservatives had no plans for any further Sunday deregulation. But the chancellor is said to be keen and, whilst he seems to have missed his chance this time, if the proposals come back in a new bill, the SNP veto is likely to be nullified by English Votes For English Laws preventing it from voting on the issue. So we have probably not heard the last of Sunday deregulation.

The Church of England's arguments have never been based on Sabbatarianism, so those who dismiss "religious objections to Sunday trading" miss the point. Longer Sunday hours will affect millions, in and beyond the retail industry, who will no longer be able to share time off with their friends. Our beliefs commit us to defend the common good of families and communities. And, incidentally, the further extension of Sunday shopping hours completely fails David Cameron's own "family test".

Let's remember why there are restrictions on which shops can open on Sundays and when. To hear some of the lobbyists, you would think that every shop in England and Wales was shut throughout Sunday. But the law already permits small shops to open at any time on Sundays and all stores, however large, can open between 10am and 4pm. So the only ones benefitting from further deregulation are the biggest retailers who already dominate local markets.

And why is there this restriction? Precisely because a previous Conservative government believed in competition. It recognised the advantages to the consumer of having a mixture of small and large shops. And it understood that, without some constraint, the big stores would squeeze out small ones, reducing competition and limiting consumer choice. An earlier Conservative government understood that competition keeps markets healthy. The proposals now on offer forget that choice is not only about what I buy, but who I buy it from.

As for devolving the decision to local areas, the experience of local authorities negotiating with big retailer is reminiscent of David and Goliath. Local people are not to be offered the choice of reduced hours, so localism here is purely one-way. When one area extends hours, it will drag trade away from those who don't. It is called the "standing effect" – in any crowd, if someone stands up to get a better view, soon all are standing, and no one has a better view.

These proposals are all about market share for a few big companies at the expense of other retailers. No wonder the industry as a whole is divided and small retailers are especially anxious. We believe the law should help traders to act for the long-term health of their businesses, not force them to accommodate the short-term advantage of a few consortia.

There is no doubt that internet shopping has been a massive challenge to traditional shopping – and, because the face-to-face relationship between retailer and customer is worth holding on to, the High Street needs to adapt to survive. But longer shopping hours to compete with a 24/7 internet implies shops opening 24/7. Even then the internet wins on grounds of convenience. The traditional retail sector can never compete with the internet on hours – it has to offer a different, and much better, consumer experience overall.

So the principles behind our opposition to longer Sunday trading hours are about fair competition, the health of the High Street, consumer choice in the long term and the ability of people to associate together for voluntary activities. This is about how the market and the law can work together to support stronger communities and resilient families. Longer opening hours subordinate the common good to private profit for a few big firms. Whatever happened to the vision of a "Big Society"? What happened to one-nation Conservatism?

Malcolm Brown is director of mission and public affairs for the Church of England.