New planning restrictions are not an attempt to prejudice a public inquiry into a long-running application for a John Lewis store at the Sprucefield shopping complex, the environment minister has insisted.
Policy guidelines issued by Alex Attwood restrict future retail developments at the centre outside Lisburn to outlets selling bulky goods only.
That would appear to threaten the much-delayed bid by Sprucefield to build a major extension, with John Lewis as the anchor tenant.
The almost decade-old application has been subject to a public inquiry after strong objections by traders in Lisburn city centre. The inquiry was adjourned in 2010 and is due to restart later this year.
The Planning Appeals Commission will examine the issues in April before a final ministerial decision.
Officials have stressed that the commission will make an independent assessment of the application. However, the policy framework they will be guided by will include the bulky goods restriction.
Mr Attwood said the new restrictions to the Belfast Metropolitan Area Plan (BMAP) were part of a strategy to promote Northern Ireland's capital city as the leading shopping location.
The minister said he wished to assist the commission and all parties to the inquiry by releasing his department's decisions on those parts of BMAP relevant to the planning application in advance of the final adoption of BMAP, expected at the end of March.
"I am strongly committed to putting Belfast first in these difficult times," he said.
"This is consistent with the revised Regional Development Strategy 2035 which aims to strengthen Belfast as the regional economic driver and the primary retail location in Northern Ireland. My decision today will support that as evidence indicates a high vacancy rate. I intend to take a precautionary approach to retailing."