Retail complex approval criticised
Traders in Strabane have heavily criticised a decision to give the green light to a major out-of-town retail development.
Stormont Environment minister Mark H Durkan hailed the proposed complex as having the potential to create many jobs and transform Strabane.
The minister insisted that despite opposition from town centre traders, the majority in Strabane were behind the project.
The proposed development on a site between Strabane and nearby Lifford, just across the Irish border, will include an employment park, a learning campus; a 90 bed hotel, a retail foodstore, a garden centre, petrol filling station, a children's play area, a sports and well-being centre, a river wildlife centre and environmental and access infrastructure.
While Mr Durkan claimed the project could turn around the fortunes of an area beset with high deprivation levels, the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association (Niirta) branded his decision a "disgrace", claiming it flew in the face of proposed departmental guidelines to put town centres first.
Niirta chief executive Glyn Roberts said: "Northern Ireland has the highest shop vacancy rate in the UK and if he (Mr Durkan) continues to grant permission to out-of-town retail hypermarkets this figure will continue to grow.
"Does Mark Durkan really want that as his ministerial legacy?"
Strabane retailer Declan Hughes said there was a vacant site in the town centre that would have provided a better location for new development.
"This decision will destroy and displace existing retail jobs from Strabane town centre, which has a vacancy rate of 30%," he said.
"It will take £50 million out of the economy of Strabane town centre and seriously damage the town's footfall."
Mr Durkan said he had given the matter careful consideration and was aware of the "fundamental planning and policy issues concerning this development".
He added: "However, I also recognise the potential benefits of the project. I am aware that Strabane is one of the most deprived areas of Northern Ireland with 44% of the population of Strabane District Council area living in deprived areas.
"I have visited Strabane and listened to and considered the views of a broad spectrum of interested parties. I acknowledge that overall there is strong local support for the project and the need for new investment, job creation and the potential for this development to act as a catalyst for further inward investment.
"I am also aware of the concerns of some local town centre traders. However, I believe that any potential negative impact associated within this development will be offset in the long term by growth in the local economy, the creation of jobs and greater wealth, inward investment and visitor spend.
"I believe this is a unique opportunity for Strabane, there is no other comparable proposal and an investment opportunity of this kind is unlikely to come forward in the foreseeable future."