Editor's Viewpoint: Planning shambles must be reformed
Published 01/02/2013 | 08:00
No one can deny that John Lewis has been patient in its pursuit of planning permission for a new store at Sprucefield.
It made its first application in 2004 and since then has seen the proposed development - with the promise of 1,500 jobs at the store and maybe more at a distribution centre - bogged down in a series of planning appeals. It is perhaps the worst example of how mind-numbingly slow the planning process can be in Northern Ireland.
But now the company's patience has run out and it has withdrawn its planning application. Effectively the company is saying that it will not come here unless the Stormont Executive comes to a decision on whether or not Sprucefield is to be a regional shopping destination.
But it seems that the Executive, or at least Environment Minister Alex Attwood and First Minister Peter Robinson are at loggerheads on what developments should be permitted.
This newspaper has been a consistent champion of town centres as evidenced by our recent We're Backing Belfast campaign to help beleaguered traders there. But we have never been convinced by the argument that John Lewis opening at Sprucefield would deal a wounding - never mind terminal - blow to Belfast or Lisburn city centre retailers. Both have a wider mix of attractions to offer and to lure in customers. Yet it is undeniable that all city centres will have to reinvent themselves to cope with out-of-town and online competition.
The John Lewis development should not be seen - as so many things in Northern Ireland are - as a zero sum argument along the lines of, 'if it goes to Sprucefield then neighbouring retail areas will be blighted'. Given our dire economic plight can we really afford to snub a £150m investment and 1,500 jobs? The Executive must take a long hard look at its planning policy for the greater Belfast area and see if this development can be resurrected. We don't want the impression to go abroad that Northern Ireland is not open for business.