Editor's Viewpoint: Province must not send wrong signal
It's been six years since retailer, John Lewis, first announced plans to set up shop in Northern Ireland and it is likely to be another year before a decision will be taken on whether or not to allow its £150m development at Sprucefield.
By any definition that shows the province's planning system in a bad light. While it is proper for all views on the development to be fully aired, the process has taken too long and has been too cumbersome.
There is no doubt that it is a complex issue and that traders in Lisburn, and even Belfast, fear the creation of a new superstore and ancillary retail outlets could damage their trade. But it is not overstretching the mark to say that the reputation of Northern Ireland as an investment location is at stake here. The John Lewis company has been remarkably patient and resilient in its efforts to locate here. There must be serious doubts that other inward investors would adopt the same attitude.
It has to be recognised, however painfully, that consumers demand the sort of retailing promised by the John Lewis development. To pretend otherwise is as pointless as King Canute trying to hold back the tide. However we must also accept that there are genuine concerns among small, indigenous store owners who would find it difficult to compete against a blue chip retailing Goliath. What is needed is inventive and creative thinking. Instead of competing directly against the proposed Sprucefield development, local retailers must attempt to provide complementary services.
At a time when the need to boost the private sector in Northern Ireland has never been greater, we simply cannot afford to lose an investor of the value and reputation of John Lewis. This is an issue which cannot be put on the long finger much longer. Otherwise, as local MP Jeffrey Donaldson pointed out, the message will go abroad that Northern Ireland is closed for business. That would be disastrous.