The decision by John Lewis to pull out of its planned development at Sprucefield has finally made the Stormont Executive wake up to the enormity of the damage that decision could cause. This is a company promising £150m of investment and 1,500 jobs in the midst of a deep recession. It has been patiently waiting for nearly nine years for permission to open up shop here and then receives what it regards as a blatant snub when Environment Minister Alex Attwood said new planning guidelines would limit further development at that site.
Now the Executive is desperately trying to claw back the investment. The First and Deputy First Ministers have agreed to invoke a legal process to refer the issue to the Executive who will then decide what is to be done. That, of course, will provoke further controversy as Mr Attwood regards the move as an encroachment on his Ministerial autonomy.
No one is suggesting that Ministers should be micro- managed and that every decision should be referred upwards to other Executive parties. That would make what is an already cumbersome administration almost impossible to work. Given that decisions by the collective Executive have to get cross-community support, party politics would come into play every time.
But surely there should be a threshold established so that when issues of sufficient import are raised it will trigger a mechanism to allow the Executive to become involved. It seems strange that the controversy over the John Lewis proposal should have been allowed to fester until the company's patience ran out.
Even the most blinkered vested interest must realise that the John Lewis decision is a blow to the credibility of Northern Ireland as a place to do business. It is hard to believe that any other potential investor would show the same patience in trying to get planning permission. This should be a warning to the Executive to look again at its decision-making processes. In the meantime it must do all possible to resurrect this economic investment.