Belfast Telegraph

Editor's Viewpoint: Out of town outlets must be considered

The reaction to a proposed multi-million shopping, office and leisure development on the outskirts of Omagh is along familiar lines.

The default position of existing traders - everywhere that such developments are mooted - is that the new facilities will lead to the death of the town centre. The John Lewis development at Sprucefield has suffered long delays because of repeated objections by traders in both Lisburn and Belfast.

The fears of existing traders is based largely on experience in England where out-of-town developments have had a devastating effect on many town centres. But planners have also learned from the experience and now take a much more rounded view of any proposed development when coming to their conclusions.

That is the correct approach. The mix of facilities in any proposed development should be compared to existing retail, commercial or leisure provision to ensure that they are as complementary as possible rather than just purely competitive. It also has to be accepted that modern shoppers like the large scale development which out of town sites favour. The developers behind the proposed Omagh project also created the Outlet retail centre near Banbridge, which has shown that it can be a benefit to the town by attracting customers from as far away as Dublin. These are customers who otherwise would never have visited the town.

There are other benefits from these large scale developments in construction jobs and employment in the finished facilities. Critics will argue that employment will only be at the expense of existing businesses, but this need not be inevitable. Planners should ensure each project is judged solely on its merits and that its social and economic impact is taken into consideration before any decision is made. While the process should be thorough, there are legitimate concerns planning decisions can be too protracted. The redeployment of around one-third of planning officials to other departments at Stormont should not be a signal for further delays in making decisions.

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