|Mayor Ronnie Crawford, Environment Minister Sammy Wilson, Jeffrey Donaldson MP and Cllr Bill Gardiner-Watson, Chairman of Lisburn City Council's Planning Committee making their way to the meeting on Wednesday. Photo John Harrison.|
A DIRECTOR of the company behind the John Lewis development at Sprucefield has said that despite the economic downturn a number of retailers have already expressed strong interest in the 19 units at the site if the project receives planning permission.
Duncan Bower was speaking after Environment Minister Sammy Wilson visited Lisburn on Wednesday to announce there would be a high priority public inquiry into the scheme.
Mr Bower insisted that Westfield was not 'starting with a blank canvas' and was optimistic about the possibility of attracting more traders to the site despite the ongoing economic downturn.
Anecdotal evidence from other centres being opened by Westfield, he explained, showed there were still locations where retailers wanted to open outlets.
And he stressed the importance of achieving the right blend of stores to complement not only John Lewis but also the retail offering in Lisburn City Centre.
The Development Director, who visited Sprucefield last week to meet with local MP Jeffrey Donaldson, acknowledged people held genuine concerns about the impact of the proposed retail complex on traffic in the area but felt these difficulties could be overcome with the correct use of measures such as traffic lights and signage. He also said he was keen to see some kind of fixed pedestrian link between the proposed John Lewis development and the Marks and Spencer area of Sprucefield on the opposite side of the Al to allow a flow of shoppers between the two areas.
He also felt good public transport links with the complex were vital. As well as bringing shoppers to Sprucefield, he said, a good bus service would also be important to the employees of John Lewis and Sprucefield's other retail outlets.
THE Planning Appeals Commission has said it is not yet able to confirm when it will be able to proceed with the high priority public inquiry announced on Wednesday by Environment Minister Sammy Wilson into the proposed Sprucefield development.
The news was warmly welcomed by developers Westfield, John Lewis and local politicians. However, the Commission's Chief Administrative Officer Mr. Ciaran Purvis said preparatory work for the Sprucefield inquiry could not begin until an official request was received from the Minister's office.
He said the Commission was currently working on a list of several inquiries to which the Minister's office had attached high priority and the next inquiry to be dealt with involved proposals for a major retail development in Banbridge.
Initial work on this matter such as the dispatching of questionnaires will begin next week with the hearing expected to take place in mid-June - a preparatory period of around four months.
It's now four years since the first application to construct a John Lewis store and shopping mall at Sprucefield was submit-
ted to planners. The current amended application accompanied by an environmental statement was submitted on August 28 last year by Sprucefield Centre Ltd., a joint venture between Westfield and Snoddons Construction Ltd. Full planning permission is being sought for a department store on four levels, 19 other retail units, seven restaurants and surface and multi-storey car parking.
The scheme was designated under Article 31 of the Planning (NI) Order 1991 on October 8 last year making it eligible for an inquiry and Environment Minister Sammy Wilson said on Wednesday he had spent the weekend studying details of the matter given to him by officials.
He said he felt a public inquiry was the best way forward as the proposal raised 'a number of issues which remained unresolved relating to retail and the scale of the development's impact on existing town and city centres'.
He said the contents of the still to be published Planning Policy Statement Five would also be relevant to the matter. Interest is still 'strong'
THE three main players in the proposed £150 million John Lewis development at Sprucefield have joined local politicians in welcoming Environment Minister Sammy Wilson's announcement on Wednesday of a 'high priority' public inquiry into the scheme.
In a joint statement shopping centre developers Westfield and builders Snoddons said the hearing would allow "an open examination of the scheme.
"It will also provide an opportunity to assess thoroughly the wider economic benefits that will flow from this £150 million investment in the region," they added.
Westfield also agreed with John Lewis a public inquiry was the most transparent and equitable route' for all parties in determining the application.
A spokesperson for the department store chain predicted the complex would deliver a 'significant retail and employment boost' to Northern Ireland as a whole.
Speaking in the Lagan Valley Island Council Chamber Mr. Wilson said he was conscious of the importance of new inward investment and the potential for employment - 'particularly in the current economic climate' - associated with the proposal.
The Mayor, Councillor Ronnie Crawford, said he was delighted to host the Minister and his Planning Service team on an occasion when "such a positive announcement for Northern Ireland had been made."
The Deputy Mayor Alderman Edwin Poots said the Minister's statement could be the "beginning of the end of what has become a long running saga.
"It is deeply unfortunate that this application was not allowed to proceed at the earlier point and that narrow sectional interest has damaged the local Northern Ireland economy as a consequence of selfish actions," he added.
Lagan Valley MP Jeffrey Donaldson also welcomed the Minister's decision but once again emphasised the need for the matter to be progressed as quickly as possible.
He said John Lewis already planned to open two stores in Dublin with a third earmarked for the north of the city if the Sprucefield scheme did not receive the green light.
This, he warned, would attract trade away from Northern Ireland.
The Chairman of the City Council's Planning Committee Councillor Bill Gardiner Watson said he was extremely pleased 'a sense of urgency was at last prevailing.
He said the Council was delighted its calls for a public inquiry had been successful and looked forward to a positive outcome 'at the earliest opportunity'.
The Chairman of the Economic Development Committee Councillor Allan Evart said he trusted the appeal would be "fast tracked.
"In the present economic slowdown it is vital that private development such as this goes ahead with no cost to the ratepayer as it will bring thousands of jobs to the Lisburn area," he added.
The Committee's Vice Chairman Councillor Jonathan Craig said he believed an appeal was 'the best way forward to finally achieve the appropriate development at Sprucefield'. He also called on those opposed to the development to 'reflect on their position.
Councillor Brian Heading claimed the the ordinary planning process was 'simply not robust or flexible enough' for developments such as the Sprucefield proposal.
"A public inquiry is not only the best way to air all aspects of the revised development plan, it is also likely to be faster," he added. Councillor Paul Butler felt the scheme would create job opportunities in areas such as Twinbrook, Poleglass and Lagmore.
'Now is the time for everyone to support what is a major job creation development particular during the present economic climate," he said.
Councillor Trevor Lunn said the Planning Service should be "making the process as quick and easy as possible.
"Having a John Lewis store at Sprucefield would be a massive boost for the economy of Lagan Valley and for Northern Ireland," he said.
A spokesperson for the Lagan Valley Ulster Unionist Association said its members had been pressing their MLA's and councillors to secure a public inquiry into the scheme.
"In this current economic climate this clearly has potential for the local economy," he continued.
Councillor David Archer said in the midst of the 'global economic downturn' it will be interesting to see if those who previously objected to the application and participated in judicial reviews 'over some five years' will continue to object to this major investment in the city of Lisburn.
"However I know" people will share my frustration that this seems just another milestone if albeit a welcome one, on a very very long road. John Lewis are to be commended for their continuing patience."