New planning restrictions are not an attempt to prejudice a public inquiry into a long-running application for a John Lewis store at the Sprucefield shopping complex, the environment minister has insisted.
Policy guidelines issued by Alex Attwood restrict future retail developments at the centre outside Lisburn to outlets selling bulky goods only.
That would appear to threaten the much-delayed bid by Sprucefield to build a major extension, with John Lewis as the anchor tenant.
The almost decade-old application has been subject to a public inquiry after strong objections by traders in Lisburn city centre. The inquiry was adjourned in 2010 and is due to restart later this year.
The Planning Appeals Commission will examine the issues in April before a final ministerial decision.
Officials have stressed that the commission will make an independent assessment of the application. However, the policy framework they will be guided by will include the bulky goods restriction.
Mr Attwood said the new restrictions to the Belfast Metropolitan Area Plan (BMAP) were part of a strategy to promote Northern Ireland’s capital city as the leading shopping location.
The minister 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.
“This is consistent with the revised Regional Development Strategy 2035 which aims 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. That is why I have decided to restrict future retailing at Sprucefield to bulky goods only.
“I am giving advance notice of what my department intends to adopt in relation to the retailing issues, subject to completion of all necessary statutory processes purely to assist the inquiry.
“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.
“That planning application remains to be considered carefully following the PAC inquiry report.
“All the relevant issues within the public inquiry report will be interrogated carefully before a final ministerial decision is made.
“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.”