Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 31 August 2014

Fury as £150m shops plan scrapped

Northern Ireland's Environment Minister faces demands for his resignation after developers scrapped plans to build a new £150 million shopping centre.

John Lewis and a company involved in the project near Lisburn, Co Antrim, confirmed they had withdrawn their application following a decision by Alex Attwood to restrict the scale of the scheme and because of uncertainty of planning policy.

Jeffrey Donaldson, the Democratic Unionist MP whose Lagan Valley constituency includes Sprucefield where the huge complex was planned said: "There is now a real danger John Lewis will go to Dublin."

The initial application was lodged nine years ago, and earlier this month Mr Attwood announced that development - one and a half times the size of the Castle Court shopping centre in Belfast - would have to be limited to stores dealing in "bulky goods"

Objectors claimed the scale of the project would have a devastating impact on town centres. Some wanted it to go to Belfast, but those backing the proposal insisted it would bring jobs, especially at a time when business chiefs believe there is little immediate hope of major investment in Northern Ireland's struggling economy.

Mr Attwood defended his decision, but Mr Donaldson said the minister should go. The MP said: "This is an absolute disaster for Northern Ireland which sends out a clear message that we are closed for this type of investment."

A planning application for the 500,000 sq ft development was first made in 2004. It involved a joint venture between the Australian property firm of Westfield and a local developer, Snoddons. John Lewis said its department store and 19 new shops could have meant up to 1,500 retail jobs.

A statement said: "Over the last nine years John Lewis has clearly and consistently stated that, having reviewed all available options, Sprucefield is the only suitable location to develop a new full line department store in Northern Ireland."

The company said the developers, Sprucefield Centre Ltd, and itself would review their position once the Executive had considered the Belfast Metropolitan Area Plan and that there was clarity on the role of Sprucefield as a regional shopping centre.

The Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association (NIIRTA) urged John Lewis to look at a new town or city centre location. Chief executive Glyn Roberts said: "We have always strongly supported John Lewis locating a store in a town or city centre site as opposed to an unsustainable out of town location. Northern Ireland has not only the highest town centre shop vacancy rate in the UK, but twice the national average of nearly one in four shops empty. An out of town John Lewis would have accelerated that decline further."

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