Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Sprucefield or bust, says John Lewis amid planning disarray

An artist's impression of the planned John Lewis store at Sprucefield, Co Antrim
Foyle MLA Mark H Durkan

Retail giant John Lewis remains ready to come to Northern Ireland despite the future of planning policy being thrown into limbo following a clash between Stormont ministers.

But the superstore reiterated the only location it is interested in is still Sprucefield, outside Lisburn – a project first mooted almost a decade ago.

And the company also hinted it will pursue other investment opportunities and could be persuaded to go elsewhere instead, including to the Republic.

In a statement to the Belfast Telegraph, John Lewis said: "(Our) position remains that Sprucefield is the only suitable location in Northern Ireland to successfully operate a full-line department store."

And referring to the bust-up after Environment Minister Mark H Durkan dropped the new Planning Bill, it added: "We continue to monitor the current and future planning policy."

As this paper revealed revealed recently, First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness are now considering wresting control of the abandoned legislation which had been amended to create special economic zones designed to facilitate projects like the John Lewis one.

While Sinn Fein and the DUP have sufficient votes on the Executive to force the redesignation through – it could also be taken over by Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster – the move may result in further court challenges.

But Mr Durkan argues it would conflict with an already-agreed strategy which puts Belfast first for large retail applications, with cities and towns second, and Sprucefield only earmarked for bulky goods outlets.

John Lewis withdrew its application for a Sprucefield store in February after the decision to limit the development and has now indicated it requires "a much clearer picture as to what the planning policy and environment is – and will be in the future – before considering support for another planning application," according to one source

A report commissioned by Mr Durkan's department and seen by the Belfast Telegraph warned siting John Lewis at Sprucefield would cost already hard-hit Belfast city centre traders a further £70m in lost revenue and severely affect trade in Lisburn, Craigavon, Newtownards, Banbridge and Newry.

The report, prepared for a public inquiry which did not go ahead after John Lewis pulled the plug, concluded: "The department considers that it has not yet been demonstrated that the possible economic benefits (of John Lewis at Sprucefield) would be outweighed by the cost to existing centres in terms of retail impact."

And it also argued the main reasons put forward about why the Royal Exchange site in central Belfast would not be suitable for John Lewis are "largely anecdotal" and lack any basis in evidence.

But John Lewis replied: "We have been clear throughout that having assessed the Royal Exchange scheme, it does not provide a viable opportunity for (us).

"It doesn't offer sufficient sales potential and the proposed location and configuration of the anchor department store does not meet our requirements."

Mr Durkan obtained legal advice for his move, following two full debates in the Assembly, but it has been challenged by the province's most senior law officer, Attorney General John Larkin.

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