Editor's Viewpoint: Store wars show no sign of ending
There are powerful forces lined up against the proposed John Lewis retailing development at Sprucefield.
Top end retailer House of Fraser has now joined with the objectors to the scheme which is to go to a public inquiry. It says something for the determination of John Lewis to do business in Northern Ireland that it is continuing to press for planning permission even though legal challenges have rumbled on for five years. At a time when inward investment is at a premium, we should be very grateful that the retailer is still keen to set up shop at Sprucefield.
House of Fraser says its objection is purely to the siting of John Lewis, arguing that it should be in Belfast. It contends that a large store and another 19 associated outlets at this out-of-town location would severely damage the regeneration of Belfast shopping.
It has to be recognised that House of Fraser has made a big investment in Belfast City Centre at Victoria Square, a centre which has a large number of vacant units at present. Given the relatively fragile state of the local economy, every customer is vital and rival attractions outside the city are not going to be viewed with any favour.
Having said that, there is validity in the argument that Belfast does need more retailing development and a greater mix of shops. Yet John Lewis feels that is not the ideal location for its development and respect must also be given to the retailer's analysis. After all, it has had more than sufficient time to examine all the options due to the repeated objections.
There is not a compelling argument that siting the John Lewis development at Sprucefield would deal a near mortal blow to Belfast city centre's retailing industry.
If John Lewis remains committed to its current plans - and if the planners ultimately agree - then energies should be concentrated on attracting other retailers to Belfast and continuing its regeneration.