Five years after getting the green light, the John Lewis retail development at Sprucefield is fast becoming a byword for planning quagmire.
The application for the £40 million project, centred on Ireland’s first John Lewis store, was first submitted back in 2004 but has become bogged down in a mass of legal challenges and reboots ever since.
Despite opposition from traders in Belfast and Lisburn who warned it would have a detrimental impact on their business, direct rule Environment Minister Jeff Rooker granted approval in June 2005, saying the decision was “in the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland”.
At the time, the 220,000sq ft department store promised around 700 jobs in the store and another 200 in warehousing, but was soon to run into difficulties.
In the early stages John Lewis had warned that it would not go ahead with the store if planning permission was delayed, and this promise would soon be put to the test as traders went to the High Court to challenge the planning approval.
In a complex judgment running to more than 70 pages, Mr Justice Girvan overturned Lord Rooker’s decision, saying he had not followed proper procedure when he granted planning permission against the advice of his own officials.
The judge said the minister’s decision not to hold a planning inquiry was flawed and therefore the planning approval must be quashed. However, he said he was not ruling on the merits of the store itself, rather on the way the decision to grant permission was taken — and this allowed a new planning application to be submitted.
Sprucefield Centre Ltd resubmitted the application for the John Lewis store and 29 retail units, and in March 2007 Environment Minister David Cairns announced his intention to grant planning permission.
Leave was again granted for a number of objectors, including Belfast City Council, to have this decision judicially reviewed. In light of the announcement that the minister was minded to approve the application against the advice of Planning Service, Sprucefield Centre Ltd withdrew the application in July 2007.
A fresh planning application for a £150m development was unveiled in August 2008, scaling down the scheme, with the number of retail units attached to the flagship store cut from 29 to 19.
Developers Westfield said the scheme would provide employment for 2,000 people — 700 of them at John Lewis — and boost Northern Ireland’s economy.
The company, which owns CastleCourt in Belfast city centre said the 50,000sq metre development would feature a department store on four levels, 19 retail units, surface and multi-storey car parking and seven restaurants.
Unveiling the new proposals, Gareth Thomas, director of retail design and development at John Lewis, admitted to a “sense of deju-vu” and emphasised that Sprucefield was the one and only choice of location in Northern Ireland.
“Sprucefield is uniquely well connected in Northern Ireland — Belfast is not an option, so it’s Sprucefield or not at all,” he insisted.
And in February 2009 Environment Minister Sammy Wilson announced a public inquiry, apparently signalling an end to the years of uncertainty. He promised the proposal would be given high priority. The decision won the support of both applicant and objectors as it was expected to bring a swifter conclusion than a simple yes or no which would be vunerable to further legal challenge.
The company also outlined plans to locate its all-Ireland distribution centre at Sprucefield, although this depends on whether construction starts before another planned store in Dublin.
The inquiry was due to go ahead last November but was postponed when it emerged that the developers had submitted their Environmental Statement after the deadline.
And last Friday it looked doubtful whether the latest public inquiry would go ahead, after opponents were granted High Court leave to seek a judicial review over alleged irregularities in advertising environmental information.
Traders from Bow Street Mall and Central Craigavon Ltd said it should have been up to the Department of the Environment, not the applicants, to place newspaper advertisements about the scheme. Stewart Beattie QC, for Bow Street Mall, said his clients only learned of the advert a week after it first appeared.
He said it gave members of the public four weeks to respond, arguing this meant views could be submitted as the inquiry is due to close.
“What has gone wrong in this application is the haste to get matters on has caused issues to be short-circuited and short-handed, and things have gone awry,” he told the High Court.