DECISION DAY FOR LEWIS
by JULIE ANN SPENCE
Battle lines are drawn as inquiry into £150m plan starts next week
THE public inquiry into plans to build a new £150m Om shopping centre at Sprucefield anchored by John Lewis is finally set to begin next week.
Almost exactly six years after the application was first lodged, the Planning Appeals Commission will hear the arguments for and against the Westfield application which has become one of the most contentious retail schemes ever put forward in Northern Ireland. Supporters, including Lisburn Council, say it will bring up to 1,000 jobs as well as a massive boost to the construction industry. But opponents in Lisburn say that while they welcome John Lewis, the other 19 units at the centre will suck trade from existing shops and destroy the city centre.
The inquiry was due to start last November but was dramatically halted weeks before when it emerged an Environmental Statement had been submitted by the developers after the deadline.
The application was then re-submitted by Westfield, and marked as a matter of priority for the PAC.
Following the inquiry the PAC will make its recommendations and a the final decision will then be made by the Environment Minister, Edwin Poots.
The inquiry, which is expected to last several days, will take a more informal route with a round table discussion being chaired by a Planning Appeals Commissioner.
Those supporting the development, including John Lewis and Lisburn City Council, as well as the objectors - House of Fraser, Central Craigavon Ltd, Bow Street Mall, Belfast City Council, Belfast Chamber of Commerce, CUSP Ltd and Arqiva Communications - will all be represented at the inquiry.
It is also understood local residents objected to the Sprucefield development, however they did not submit an official Statement of Case.
Confirming their intention to be professionally represented at the inquiry, a spokesperson for Lisburn Council said: "The Council continues to support the proposed Westfield development and has campaigned for several years in support of the planning application. If successful, it would create thousands of new jobs across both the beleaguered construction industry and the retail sector, bringing with it an estimated £150 million in inward investment to the local Northern Ireland economy.
"Given the regional significance of Sprucefield, both as a key location along the North-South and East-West Transport Corridors and the potential scale of investment this would bring to Northern Ireland, the Council is hopeful of a positive outcome to the planning process. The Council would expect a prompt decision by the Planning Service once the outcome of the Inquiry is available."
All parties with an interest in the development have already lodged their Statements of Case, based on eight topic headings provided by the Planning Appeals Commission. The topics which the parties commented on included 'planning policy', 'economic benefits', 'impact on existing retail centres', 'impact on travel patterns', 'design, landscape and visual impact', 'impact on natural and built environment', 'impact on broadcasting and telecommunications' and 'any other issues'.
The inquiry is scheduled to begin at 10am on Monday (June 7) at the Planning Appeals Commission Headquarters, Park House, in Belfast
At the conclusion of the inquiry, the Commission will consider the evidence presented and make a recommendation to Environment Minister Edwin Poots on whether or not the development should go ahead.
June 2004 - Plans announced for Sprucefield development with John Lewis and 29 other stores. Company sets a deadline of December for securing planning permission.
November 2004 - Belfast Chamber of Trade formally objects saying there would be 'almost as much floor space as we have in the city centre'
November 2004 - Australian company Westlield Group, which also owns Castlecourt in Belfast, completes the purchase of Sprucefield Park from Stannifer.
November 2004 - John Lewis says that a "prompt" decision on the planning application critical to its plans. The company's director of retail operations, Gareth Thomas, said they had a very tight building schedule for Sprucefield and avoiding further delay at this planning stage was "crucial'.
June 2005 - Direct rule minister Lord Rooker gives planning permission claiming the decision is 'a no brainer'.
May 2006 - The High Court quashes Lord Rooker's decision. Mr Justice Girvan stresses he was not ruling on the merits of the application but the way the decision was reached.
March 2007 - New direct rule minister David Cairns again grants planning permission labelling it 'good news for Northern Ireland'.
February 2008 - The decision is again challenged in the courts after it emerges senior officials in the Planning Service had recommended refusal. Westfield and their co-developer Snoddons withdrew the proposal.
August 2008 - A new planning application is lodged with a request by the developers for an immediate public inquiry. Number of additional units cut from 29 to 19.
February 2009 - Environment Minister Sammy Wilson announces a public inquiry into the application.
October 2009 -Planning Appeals Commission shelves the inquiry weeks before it is due to begin because, it says, an environmental impact assessment was not filed in time by the developers.
December 2009 - New application lodged and June date set for public inquiry.
June 2010 - Public inquiry begins