A FINAL decision on the long awaited development of a John Lewis store at Sprucefield came a step closer this week when the Planning Appeals Commission set a date for a public inquiry into the planning application.
The inquiry, which has been called for by supporters and opponents of the scheme, will begin on Monday November 30. However it is likely to be the start of next year before it is completed.
The chairman of Lisburn City Council's Planning Committee, Councillor Bill Gardiner-Watson, who received the letter from the PAC revealing the start date, said he was pleased the inquiry would finally begin. However he was also critical of the length of time being taken to reach a decision on the development.
"This information is very welcome although very late as far as the John Lewis shopping complex is concerned," said Mr Gardiner-Watson.
"I would like to thank the Minister for his support in stressing the importance of this public inquiry and I would again point out this development will produce thousands of jobs at a time when the country is in recession.
Mr Gardiner-Watson added: "There has already been a delay of over four years and I would urge PAC to give this application a speedy and positive decision."
Lagan Valley MP Jeffrey Donaldson also welcomed the announcement but said he was concerned the planning system was "deeply flawed."
He continued: "I think there is something deeply flawed in a system when an application like this cannot be brought forward sooner. Whilst welcoming the fact that we have got a date, we also need to make it clear we hope the system can be changed."
Former Mayor Councillor Ronnie Crawford said he was disappointed the enquiry will not be held until the end of the year and added: "It is quite clear that the provision of jobs and investment in Lisburn is far from the top of this administration's priority list."
Councillor Jonathan Craig said it was good the process was "moving forward" and Alderman Cecil Calvert added: "It's a shame it has taken so long."
Councillor Peter O'Hagan questioned why the planning process took so long and Councillor Paul Butler concluded: "It needs to be the focus for the Executive that applications of huge economic impact like this need to be fast tracked."
Cllr Trevor Lunn said while it was frustrating to have to wait until November, at least there was now a date. "Hopefully the inquiry will see all outstanding issues dealt with in a speedy and efficient manner.
"Lisburn people have been left waiting on both the John Lewis issue and the Maze site. These issues need to be addressed as quickly as possible because they have been in the pipeline for a very long time already. Given the current economic climate, I cannot see why government would not be falling over itself to make progress on both."