John Lewis 'will cost Belfast £70m in lost business'
Hard-hit Belfast city centre shops will lose a further £70m if a John Lewis superstore opens at Sprucefield, a secret report has claimed.
The document, obtained by the Belfast Telegraph, warned the development would also hit Lisburn, Craigavon, Newtownards, Banbridge and Newry.
Nonetheless, the DUP has confirmed it intends to approach John Lewis again if new fast-track planning powers are included in Stormont legislation later this year.
And a statement from John Lewis said the report appeared to paint a very inaccurate picture and "massively exaggerate" the impact on Belfast and other areas.
The report, drawn up by DoE officials, concluded that "Belfast city centre will lose the most trade in absolute terms with more than £70m being diverted".
"The department considers that it has not yet been demonstrated that the possible economic benefits would be outweighed by the cost to existing centres in terms of retail impact."
The report also argued there was "no basis in evidence" why John Lewis could not become part of the Royal Exchange site in Belfast, concluding, "the statement that there is insufficient sales potential in Belfast city centre is unsubstantiated".
It also referred to a study by Lisney showing the city had a retail vacancy level of 23% compared to 15% in 2010 and 12% in 2001.
The implication was the Sprucefield proposal is "take it or leave it", and must be judged against planning policy, officials said.
A statement from John Lewis said it hadn't seen the report but said it "appears to paint a very inaccurate picture of the retail impacts of a John Lewis department store at Sprucefield and seems to massively exaggerate the effects on neighbouring towns and cities".
It continued: "We were always of the opinion that a public inquiry would have been the proper forum in which to scrutinise and test the evidence.
"But the minister's change in planning policy regarding Sprucefield's designation as a regional shopping centre shortly before the inquiry was due to recommence meant that in our opinion such an inquiry would have been prejudiced."
DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson, who plans to meet John Lewis management when the new Planning Bill goes ahead, said he believed the arguments in the DoE document were "deeply flawed".
The Lagan Valley MP claimed John Lewis would bring "significantly added value" and added: "Some see it as a threat, but I regard it as an opportunity and remain fully supportive of it."
John Lewis wanted to build a four-storey superstore at Sprucefield, near Lisburn, with 19 shops, seven restaurants and 3,000 car parking spaces.
After years of delay, it withdrew its application in January after then Environment Minister Alex Attwood decided to limit the goods sold to "bulky items".
Mr Attwood then accused the First and Deputy First Ministers of a "power grab" as their plans for special economic zones could take the decision out of DoE's hands.