The future of one of Northern Ireland’s busiest shopping towns is being threatened by a controversial out-of-town superstore, it has been warned.
Yesterday, after two rejected planning applications, the green light was given to Tesco to open a new 80,000 sq ft complex on the outskirts of Banbridge, Co Down.
The store will be slightly smaller than the retailer had hoped to build at the Bridgewater Retail Park, but it will still be one of the largest in Northern Ireland.
Although the venture has been widely welcomed by politicians, local traders are claiming that the giant retailer will pose a major threat to their livelihoods and turn the town into a commercial wasteland.
Chief executive of the Northern Ireland Retail Traders’ Association Glyn Roberts warned Banbridge could end up as a “tumbleweed town”.
“This is a hammer blow for Banbridge,” he said.
“I think it's a very bad decision, and effectively it is the last decision of this outgoing Environment Minister to give Banbridge town centre and its traders a P45.
“We need to nail this myth about all these jobs that they are bringing. These jobs will be displaced or destroyed jobs from Banbridge town centre.”
Tesco first submitted plans in 2007, and presented an amended scheme in 2008 which slightly reduced the size of the proposed store.
In December 2009 plans to build the largest Tesco store in Ireland, close to Banbridge, were rejected for a second time.
But Environment Minister Edwin Poots announced he was giving the project the go-ahead on Thursday night.
Objectors have voiced their disappointment with the Planning Department and said the development would damage Banbridge town centre.
“We’re very proud of our independent shops and we want to preserve our unique offering,” said Joe Quail, chair of Banbridge Chamber of Commerce.
“But my fears would be that promises to decrease rates and build a car park and bus station in the town will be broken. Local retailers also worry that Tesco will destroy the local economy and not bring jobs for people here by using automated checkouts.”
The new supermarket will be part of a development that will include retail warehouses and create work for hundreds of people.
Banbridge DUP councillor Junior McCrum said he welcomed the initiative on that basis, provided the retailers who were already there are protected.
“We don’t want a ghost town like Lurgan or Antrim,” he said.
“But anything that brings jobs to the town and creates a spin-off for the economy is a good thing.”
The new store, which will be twice the size of the existing Tesco in Banbridge, brings to 35 the number of outlets the company has across the province.
Tesco has also agreed to keep its Castlewellan Road store trading, following an extensive multi-million pound refurbishment last year.
Operations director Gary Mills said: “At this time of economic uncertainty, this approval will realise hundreds of flexible, high-quality jobs.”
One of Northern Ireland’s leading retail experts Donald McFetridge said the news would help hard-pressed householders get more bang for their buck at a time of recession.
“This is certainly a good thing for consumers who are trying to get better living standards from their incomes,” said Mr McFetridge.
“There is no reason why this should detract from shops in the town centre as its location means it will primarily attract cross-|border shoppers.”