'Fatal blow' for John Lewis store at Sprucefield
Controversial plans for a John Lewis store in Northern Ireland may have been dealt a fatal blow by a new planning policy.
The development at Sprucefield, which includes 19 other retail units, was first suggested nearly nine years ago.
Environment Minister Alex Attwood has confirmed a new area plan will limit further development at Sprucefield to "bulky goods" like furniture.
However, John Lewis said it remained committed to a store at Sprucefield.
Mr Attwood said he was committed to putting "Belfast first" in "difficult times".
"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," he added.
"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 (Belfast) metropolitan area taking additional retail floor space.
"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."
The DUP MP for Lagan Valley, Jeffrey Donaldson, said that he regretted the line the minister was taking.
He said that if the development did not go ahead at Sprucefield, it was likely that John Lewis would site their store in the Irish Republic.
"We need to get real here and this notion that the choice is between Belfast and Sprucefield is not right," he said.
"Talk to John Lewis, they want a large outlet in Northern Ireland, they want it in Sprucefield where there is a catchment area of two million people, Belfast hasn't got that.
"Their next choice for a location is Dublin, not Belfast."
A John Lewis spokesperson said the company would take time to consider the minister's statement.
"We, however, remain fully committed to opening a full-line department store at Sprucefield," he said.
"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."
Objectors have said the scale of the Sprucefield project would damage town centres, supporters have said it will bring jobs.
The planned development at Sprucefield was said to have been one and a half times the size of the Castlecourt shopping centre in Belfast.
But the developers behind the stalled Royal Exchange Scheme in Belfast are still hoping to persuade John Lewis into the city.
The latest Sprucefield plans are set to be considered by the Planning Appeals Commission (PAC) in April.
It will consider if there are any obstacles to the resumption of a public inquiry and to discuss dates.
A planning application for the 500,000 sq ft development was first made in 2004.
Although it is most associated with the department store John Lewis, the application has been made by the developer Sprucefield Centre Ltd.
It is a joint venture between the Australian property firm Westfield and the local developer Snoddons.
John Lewis have committed to being the anchor tenant at the development.
The project has faced a series of legal challenges from some Lisburn traders who fear it could damage city-centre shopping.
Rival retail landlords have also opposed it.
Mr Attwood said on Friday that he wanted to stress that he was not "reopening the debate on any policy issues".
He also said he was not attempting to prejudice the outcome of the public inquiry in April.
"That planning application remains to be considered carefully following the PAC inquiry report," he added.
"All the relevant issues within the public inquiry report will be interrogated carefully before a final ministerial decision is made."
'Curb future development'
Hugh Black, Victoria Square's centre manager, said he believed Mr Attwood's decision confirmed that Belfast city centre would remain as the primary regional shopping hub for Northern Ireland.
"Planning policy which bolsters city and town centre environments is exactly what is required for Belfast city centre and the environment minister's statement clarifies a position that makes sense and is in line with good planning practice across the rest of the UK and the developed world," he said.
"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, 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."
Chairman of Lisburn City Council's planning committee Alderman James Tinsley said that the minister's decision would have "major repercussions" and could curb future development in towns and cities across Northern Ireland.
"The minister has made it quite clear in his announcement that it is his opinion that Belfast is the priority for investment and development in Northern Ireland, at the expense of all other areas," he said.
Lisburn mayor Alderman William Leathem said the minister's statement would ensure that "areas outside Belfast city centre could, from now on, expect the crumbs from the table with regard to retail development".
"All cities and towns across Northern Ireland are important and should have a voice and we will continue to work with all relevant organisations to ensure these voices will not be ignored by the minister or anybody else," said Alderman Leathem.