Northern Ireland

No John Lewis Sprucefield planning role for Poots

Edwin Poots
Image caption Environment Minister Edwin Poots will have no more involvement in the planning application

Environment Minister Edwin Poots will have no more involvement in decision-making over a controversial John Lewis planning application near Lisburn.

His department will reconsider if more information is needed on the environmental impact of development at Sprucefield, the High Court was told.

It means the end of a legal challenge to the plan brought by business rivals.

The moves may also result in a long-delayed public inquiry into the proposals finally going ahead.

Rival retailers had launched proceedings over claims that a proper assessment was not carried out on the consequences for badgers, bats and newts at the site.

Mr Poots was accused of bias after telling the BBC's Nolan Show the actions of those involved in the litigation were "despicable and disgraceful" and "intolerable".

The minister had said it was "outrageous" for courts to allow judicial reviews when it was one commercial interest competing against another.

His comments were referred to the Attorney General for consideration of any potential contempt of court, although it was decided that no action would be taken.

Fresh decision

A lawyer for the DoE rejected the allegations of bias against Mr Poots but said he had agreed to step aside from the decision-making role in the planning application, assigning responsibility instead to his permanent secretary.

He also confirmed the Department has decided to make a fresh decision on whether to seek further environmental information in accordance with the relevant regulations.

On that basis, he contended, it would serve no purpose to continue with the application for judicial review.

Lawyers for the rival retailers who brought the case welcomed the position taken by the department.

William Orbinson QC, appearing for the House of Fraser and other businesses in Belfast, said: "We have in essence achieved what we sought to achieve in our application."

However, David Scoffield, appearing for Central Craigavon Limited, expressed some reservations about the "quick-fix adopted by the minister".

The judge, Mr Justice Weatherup, agreed to dismiss the case with the Department ordered to pay the legal costs.

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