EFFORTS are going on behind the scenes to seek an urgent court ruling which would allow the long awaited public inquiry into the building of a John Lewis store at Sprucefield to go ahead before the end of the year.
The inquiry was due to start in four weeks time, but was dramatically halted by the Planning Appeals Commission last week amid uncertainty over whether a document which formed part of the application by the developers Westfield had been submitted in time.
The Appeals Commission now wants a court ruling on whether it is legal to proceed with the inquiry. In the meantime Westfield have submitted a duplicate application, which is currently being processed by the Planning Service.
A source close to the Planning Service said both Westfield and the planners were seeking an early hearing in court in the hope the original application could be deemed live and the public inquiry could proceed. If the court makes this ruling, the public inquiry could still be held before the end of the year.
However, if the original application is thrown out the processing of the duplicate application could lead to further delays.
It is also understood the Sprucefield application will remain as the highest priority case for the Planning Appeals Commission.
A Westfield spokesperson said: "We are disappointed by the decision to postpone the Public Inquiry.
"This decision will further delay the significant investment and job creation to the area which would be delivered by this scheme should planning consent be granted.
"Whilst we will work with the Planning Service to seek clarity on the status of the existing planning application, we have submitted a duplicate application which has been validated today. We continue to believe that a Public Inquiry should be held in order to facilitate open and public debate, and that it should be expedited. Westfield remains committed to the project."
Local politicians have expressed anger and disappointment over the latest twist in the saga. The Mayor, Councillor Allan Ewart, said he was deeply disappointed over the delay.
The fact this major investment opportunity will be further delayed by what amounts to a technicality is very unfortunate," said Mr Ewart.
"It is particularly unfortunate that in the current economic climate much needed construction work, hundreds of permanent jobs and this clear demonstration of confidence in Northern Ireland as an investment location are all delayed because of this issue.
"Lisburn City Council has steadfastly supported the proposal to develop a John Lewis store at Sprucefield throughout the history of this project from the first planning application in 2004 and the Council will continue to do so."
Lagan Valley MLA Paul Butler said the delay in the development was 'a delay in job provision'.
"We are currently in the midst of serious recession with many people both in the construction and retail sectors being unemployed" he said.
"This development would bring significant employment benefits. Over 2,000 job opportunities, both in construction and retail services would be made available. We now need to see an rescheduled date for the public inquiry into the development being made available as soon as possible in order to push this project forward."
MLA Trevor Lunn reacted angrily to news of the delay, saying: "This is yet another bodyblow to the city. We are supposed to be promoting inward investment, not sabotaging it. This delay could put hundreds of construction and retail jobs at risk.
"Coming as it does after the massive letdown of the failure to build a multi-sports stadium at the Maze, people in Lisburn will rightly be angry about this.'
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What's the problem this time?
The planning application has to be supported by a number of documents including an environmental impact assessment. Normally this has to be sent to the planners within three months, but it can be later if an extension is requested. There seems to be uncertainty as to whether an extension was requested by the developers Westfield, but the environmental impact report was submitted after ten months.
The report's there now, why not go ahead?
The Planning Appeals Commission wants a court to rule whether the proper procedure was followed. If not any decision they make could be challenged in the courts later on.
Why is there yet another application?
Westfield, and the planning service, are keen to get a court to make a decision as quickly as possible, but if that decision is that the document was sent in too late the whole application will be deemed to have been refused. By putting in another application now, Westfield are making sure there won't be any further delay if the judge rules against them.
Will this saga ever end?
Everyone, on all sides, has said they want a decision one way or another. Even if it has to go back to square one, those for and against the scheme are ready for the public inquiry and a new date should be set quite quickly.
LISBURN City Council will write to the Department of Environment and to the office of the First and Deputy First Ministers asking for the new planning application at Sprucefield Park to be fast tracked.
This was proposed by Councillor Jonathan Craig MLA and seconded by Councillor William Gardiner-Watson at Tuesday's monthly meeting of the Council. Mr Craig said these bodies are the "main points" of contact and it is "only right to put pressure on them". He added: "We don't have proof but we feel the entire system is dragging its heels with this application which is to the benefit of the whole of Northern Ireland."
Mr Gardiner-Watson described the situation as "disgraceful" and said that if the original application had been approved it would have provided jobs. "But everyone seems to be opposing it," he said. "The applicant must be commended for their patience."