Court ruling opens way for John Lewis store in Northern Ireland
Hopes have been raised that John Lewis will reassess its decision to pull out of a major development at Sprucefield after a Belfast court overturned a 'bulky goods only' planning restriction that had discouraged the retail giant.
The battle over where John Lewis' first store in Northern Ireland should be sited has been raging for 12 years.
The retailer, which currently has no stores in Ireland, has consistently said that Sprucefield is the only site it would consider for its development.
But the location sparked intense opposition, both from retail organisations - who feared it would undermine town and city centre shops - and from Belfast City Council, which felt that the capital could become a less attractive option for shoppers if the out-of-town development was permitted.
The controversy has seen a welter of legal battles and protracted wrangling over Northern Ireland's complex planning regulations.
A public inquiry was due to begin in 2013, but before that the upmarket UK retailer withdrew its planning application when the then Environment Minister Alex Attwood ruled retail at Sprucefield should be limited to "bulky goods".
Mr Justice Treacy's decision in the High Court yesterday has been warmly welcomed by Lisburn and Castlereagh Council and Lagan Valley MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, as well as Northern Ireland's Infrastructure and Economy Ministers.
However, it has been criticised by small retailer representatives and Belfast City Council.
Sir Jeffrey said: "This ruling confirms that the bulky goods restriction which prevented John Lewis from locating at Sprucefield has been removed. Those who have given up on the fight to secure this major development are wrong.
"I will continue to work with the company and the developers, as I have done over the last number of years. The path is now clear for an application to be lodged and I would hope this can happen as soon as possible."
But Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association chief executive Glyn Roberts said: "If our town and city centres are to have any chance of recovery, the very last thing they need is any more out-of-town retail applications being granted which draw away footfall and trade."
And it seems the legal wrangling is not over yet.
Belfast City Council said last night that it plans to appeal against yesterday's High Court judgment lifting bulky goods restrictions at Sprucefield. A council spokesman said: "The council will do everything that is necessary to ensure that Belfast's regeneration and investment strategy is delivered, and this includes protecting existing retail and developing our retail offering to ensure we can compete with other regional cities regards retail provision."
Support for an appeal also came from Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce president Gordon McElroy.
"Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce considers that the removal of a bulky goods condition to pave the way for a John Lewis store at Sprucefield near Lisburn is bad for Northern Ireland and bad for Belfast in particular," he said.
Last night a John Lewis spokeswoman reacted cautiously to the news from the Belfast court ruling.
"We will continue to monitor developments, but we do not have any current plans to open a shop in the province," she said.
The employee-owned retail chain has more than 40 stores across the UK, but none in either Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland.