A public inquiry into the proposed John Lewis store at Sprucefield was today announced — signalling an end to years of uncertainty over the multi-million pound project.
Environment Minister Sammy Wilson approved the inquiry decision this morning into the controversial plans to bring the retailer to the shopping centre near Lisburn.
Speaking at the Lagan Valley Island Complex in the city, the minister promised the proposal will now be given high priority, five years after the leading UK retailer first announced plans to come to Northern Ireland.
John Lewis had intended to open its first store in Ireland in 2005, but the project became mired in controversy as it ran into legal difficulties.
The latest announcement comes as the Belfast Telegraph launches its Let’s Get Back to Work campaign, urging the Executive to help kickstart Northern Ireland's economy by driving forward major projects that could create jobs.
The original John Lewis |application was approved by direct rule minister Jeff Rooker in 2005 but the decision was overturned following a legal challenge by traders in Belfast and Lisburn city centres.
Although a public inquiry will further delay the bid, it is supported by joint developers Westfield and Snoddens Construction Limited who called for a public inquiry last year when they revealed revamped plans for the scheme.
The inquiry is supported by both sides in the planning dispute as it is expected to bring a swifter conclusion than a simple yes or no decision, which would be vulnerable to further challenges.
The current application consists of a John Lewis department store, and units for 19 other outlets.
According to the developers the proposed development, if given the go-ahead, would cost £150m to build and generate a total of 2,000 new jobs — including 700 of them in John Lewis and more than 500 during the construction phase.
The company has also outlined plans to locate its all-Ireland distribution centre at Sprucefield, although this depends on whether construction starts before another proposed store in Dublin.
The revised application by Sprucefield Centre Limited was submitted to the Planning Service on August 28 last year.
Announcing his decision this morning, Mr Wilson said: “This proposal raises a number of issues which remain unresolved relating to retail and the scale of the potential impact on existing town and city centres.
“I have considered the options available to me and I am satisfied that the best way forward is through the public inquiry procedure.
“In making this decision, I am conscious of the importance of new inward investment and the potential for employment associated with the proposal, particularly in the current economic climate. I will, therefore, be asking the Planning Appeals Commission to give this matter a high priority.
“I note this application was submitted in late August. It is yet another example of my Department’s efforts to process large scale investment proposals to a recommendation within six months.”
Sprucefield Centre Limited — a joint venture between Westfield and Snoddens Construction Limited — is seeking full planning permission for a department store on four levels, 19 retail units, surface and multi-storey car parking, and seven restaurants, adding an additional 46,388 sq m of unrestricted class 1 retailing at Sprucefield.
Lagan Valley MP Jeffrey Donaldson, a longstanding supporter of the scheme, said a public inquiry would be the best way forward.
“We’ve been pressing for a public inquiry to be held on Sprucefield because we believe it will enable all parties to have a say in a very focused process and hopefully mean a decision will finally be taken on the proposed development, including John Lewis, within the next few months,” he said.
“It’s important to avoid the legal wrangles that have plagued the process over the last three years and a public inquiry will enable a full examination of all the issues and hopefully a positive decision will emerge that will will benefit Northern Ireland at this time of economic recession.”