John Lewis saga: Eleven years later, MP is confident new Sprucefield plans will be approved
A "significantly different" planning application for upmarket retail chain John Lewis's controversial Sprucefield store will be launched "in the coming weeks".
MP for Lagan Valley Jeffrey Donaldson met with the owner of the retail park, Intu, and John Lewis, and said he is "confident" the new proposal will be successful.
This is the latest chapter in John Lewis's decade-long battle with Northern Ireland planners to open a store at the out-of-town retail park next to the M1 motorway.
In January 2013, it withdrew its application when then Environment minister Alex Attwood ruled retail at Sprucefield should be limited to 'bulky goods'. John Lewis, which has no stores in Ireland, has always said Sprucefield is the only location it is interested in.
Mr Donaldson said: "I have had two very positive meetings with Intu and the senior management of John Lewis. It (the new planning application) will be significantly different and has a much better prospect of being approved. I am confident the prospect of success is greatly improved."
The MP said he didn't want to "pre-empt" the planning application by discussing how it differs from previous failed attempts, but said it will be lodged in "the coming weeks".
Mr Donaldson said critics will find the new plans harder to oppose. "When people see what is proposed it is significantly different and will be much more difficult for those who object to its proposal," he said. "I have had several meetings with Intu but this is the first meeting with John Lewis for some time. We are certainly hopeful."
Intu, which bought Sprucefield last year for £68m, refused to comment on the plans, but said Mr Donaldson's comments were correct. John Lewis said it was awaiting the result of a judicial review on Belfast Metropolitan Area Plan (BMAP), the Department of Environment's long-term strategic vision for Belfast.
A spokesman for John Lewis said: "We are continuing to monitor developments in Northern Ireland and the next step is to await the outcome of the forthcoming judicial review challenge of the minister's adoption of BMap."
BMAP identifies zones for retail, residential and commercial developments in Belfast and surrounding areas, such as Carrickfergus, Lisburn, and north Down.
Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment Minister Arlene Foster launched legal proceedings against the policy last year after it was given the green light.
Lewis Gordon, senior surveyor at Dunlop Heywood, explained what the policy entails.
He said: "The BMAP retail strategy means that any retail applications must be judged against: promotion of Belfast city centre as the leading shopping centre in the BMAP area and Northern Ireland; promotion of Lisburn city centre and the town centres of Bangor, Carrickfergus, Ballyclare, Carryduff, Holywood as the main focus for additional retail capacity; expansion of Sprucefield regional shopping centre for bulky goods only, eg large items such as furniture, electrical goods and similar bulky goods."
Mark Hackett, of Forum of Alternative Belfast, said the issue is about how Northern Ireland will look in the future.
"It is about trying to stick to a long-term strategic plan," he said. "We ultimately need to decide how we want to live. If you allow Sprucefield to happen you will have a lot of knock-on effects. It will open the floodgates for out-of-town shopping."
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The employee-owned retail chain has 43 John Lewis stores across the UK, but none in Northern Ireland and the Republic. It also owns high-end supermarket Waitrose, which has 337 stores in the UK, but is yet to open in the province despite much speculation.