First Minister Peter Robinson has criticised campaigners against large out-of-town shopping centres, saying they deny Northern Ireland much-needed investment.
The DUP boss also claimed that those who tie big planning applications up in court actions do so for “selfish economic reasons”.
He made the remarks yesterday in a speech at the Retail NI conference in the Stormont Hotel.
Meanwhile, Environment Minister Alex Attwood announced at the event that he intends to place the draft PPS5 planning policy before next week’s meeting of the Northern Ireland Executive, seeking its formal adoption.
He also said that there are currently over 60 major planning applications awaiting a decision.
Draft PPS5 is integral to the Lisburn Sprucefield saga in which the Central Craigavon group and other parties are aiming to halt the development of a John Lewis store and 19 linked shops. A planning application was first lodged seven years ago.
Opponents of PPS5 say it gives preference to a large development like Sprucefield and that the correct environmental assessments have not been carried out.
But Mr Robinson said that the retail sector needs to let the planning system do its job, rather than using it as “a battlefield to thwart new completions”.
He stated: “Government can devise planning policies that encourage development in one location rather than another, but we can’t tell people where they want to shop.
“Planning applications can be delayed in court for purely selfish economic reasons but this merely denies much-needed investment in Northern Ireland.
“I would far rather see effort and money invested in improving what is offered to the consumer than in seeking to block competition.”
In his speech, Mr Attwood attacked stagnation in the planning system and subsequent negative impact on the economy.
“There are too many applications that have been lying around for too long.
“They won’t be lying around for too much longer as long as I am around.”
He added that there are currently 61 ‘Article 31’ — or ‘major' — planning applications, deemed of strategic or economic significance that may have a significant environmental impact.
He intends to see that most of them are upheld.
He added: “There are people being precious about the |environment and are drip-feeding |concerns to frustrate planning outcomes, and I won’t tolerate it.”
Joe Jordan, president of the Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce, said: “This is an important announcement and if adopted will provide relative certainty in planning policy terms for developers and investors in Northern Ireland.”
He also called for banks to contribute to a proposed new ‘large business tax’ which would see large stores pay more tax in order to help give a leg-up to smaller businesses.
Draft PPS5 relates to retailing and commercial leisure developments in cities, towns, other centres and settlements throughout Northern Ireland.
It essentially seeks to strike a balance between the need to sustain the viability of town and city centres and the conflicting demands of the retail sector for more out-of-town shopping centres.