MINISTER Alex Attwood yesterday denied an attempt to interfere in the controversial application for a John Lewis store outside Lisburn as he issued policy guidelines restricting retail development at the proposed Sprucefield location.
The new guidelines from the Department of the Environment restrict future retail developments at the centre outside Lisburn to outlets selling bulky goods only, while at the same time giving greater weight to retail development in Belfast and Lisburn city centres and other major towns.
Almost 10 years since John Lewis first announced its intention to open in the province, the current application for a large retail unit along with 19 smaller shop units at Sprucefield is now the subject of a public inquiry adjourned in 2010 and due to restart later this year.
The Planning Appeals Commission will examine the issues in April before a final ministerial decision.
Yesterday’s publication by the Minister would appear to be a move against the application but Mr Attwood said there had been no attempt to prejudice any eventual outcome.
Mr Attwood said the new restrictions to the Belfast Metropolitan Area Plan (BMAP) were part of a wider strategy to promote Northern Ireland’s capital city as the leading shopping location.
He said he wished to assist the commission and all parties to the inquiry by releasing his department’s decisions on those parts of BMAP relevant to the planning application in advance of the final adoption of BMAP, expected at the end of March.
“I am strongly committed to putting Belfast first in these difficult times,” he said.
“I believe that the decisions I have taken today are the right ones at this time and follow on from my recent deliberations on a number of major retailing planning applications.
“In the light of recent evidence, including a number of retail studies, I am clear that it is right to put Belfast first and protect the vitality and viability of existing city and town centres.”
That was consistent with the revised Regional Development Strategy 2035 which he said aimed to strengthen Belfast as the regional economic driver and the primary retail location in Northern Ireland.
“My decision today will support that as evidence indicates a high vacancy rate. I intend to take a precautionary approach to retailing.
“I also want to see Lisburn city centre and other town centres in the metropolitan area taking additional retail floorspace.
“Sprucefield will play a key role as a regional centre which will complement rather than compete with Belfast and existing city and town centres.
“In publishing part of the plan now, I want to stress that I am not reopening the debate on any policy issues. I also wish to emphasise that I am not attempting to prejudice the outcome of the public inquiry into the Sprucefield planning application which is due to open on 15th April.”
In the day that the firm posted a significant rise in sales over the Christmas period, John Lewis said it remained “fully committed to opening a full-line department store at Sprucefield”.
“Over the last nine years our consistent and clear position has been that the only suitable location for a John Lewis department store in Northern Ireland is at Sprucefield,” a statement added.
In Belfast, Victoria Square manager Hugh Black said planning policy that sought to bolster city and town centre environments was exactly what was required for Belfast city centre.
“The Environment Minister’s statement today clarifies a position that makes sense and is in line with good planning practice across the rest of the UK and the developed world.
“When the huge investment was made to plan and build Victoria Square, it was on the basis that Belfast City Centre would unequivocally remain as the primary regional shopping centre for Northern Ireland, we are very pleased that the Minister has confirmed that position today.
“It is very important to stress that this is not an anti-John Lewis decision, indeed the Chief Executive of our anchor tenant, House of Fraser, Northern Ireland’s premier department store, has said that he would welcome a John Lewis store in Belfast city centre since that would be consistent with other city centres in the UK where the two stores are often located within ‘the kick of a rugby ball from each other’.
“And we hope that this clarification aids and speeds up the decision of the forthcoming Public Inquiry allowing a major doubt that has held up the further regeneration of Belfast city centre and other town and city centres in Northern Ireland to be removed.”
House of Fraser chief executive John King said the decision was in line with planning policy across the rest of the UK restricting out of town retail in favour of city centre protection and regeneration.
“Alex Attwood has made a responsible and wise decision to strengthen the policy which protects and enhances Belfast’s primary shopping role in Northern Ireland,” he said.
“We support and applaud that and would welcome and encourage other major retailers to invest and support the development of the city centre. From a retail and development perspective, this is the right decision for Belfast and the whole of Northern Ireland.”
Glyn Roberts, chief executive of the independent retail group NIIRTA welcomed the “pro-town centre emphasis” of Mr Attwood’s statement.
“Given that we have the highest town centre shop vacancy rate in the UK and that Belfast has one in four shops vacant, it is right that BMAP promotes a town centre first approach to major retail planning applications”
“NIIRTA very much wants to see John Lewis come to Northern Ireland and we have always emphasised the need for them to locate in a town or city centre rather than an out of town location.
“We need closure on the Sprucefield question and hopefully April’s Planning Appeals Commission will resolve this issue and not drag it out any further.”