John Lewis £150m store loss 'outrageous'
First Minister Peter Robinson has hit out at Environment Minister Alex Attwood for making a decision which he says led John Lewis to drop plans for a £150m store at Sprucefield near Lisburn in Co Antrim.
Friday, 01 February 2013
The company confirmed on Friday that their application for the site had been withdrawn, after Mr Attwood restricted the scale of the scheme.
He announced earlier this month that the development would have to be limited to stores selling "bulky goods".
Describing the situation as "preposterous", Mr Robinson said he is concerned that John Lewis will now set up in Dublin instead.
"I just cannot understand why the decision was taken that ensured that John Lewis would be forced to move," the DUP leader told UTV.
"It's outrageous, in terms of the needs we have here and the fact that the Executive has, as its main plank in its plan for government, the growth of our economy.
"While there will be people who are glad that they don't have to compete, they don't have to go out there and fight for their customers, there will be many customers out there who wanted the opportunity of having an additional choice to make and at the end of the day, it is 1,500 jobs lost, £150m of investment lost, and it means some of our shoppers will go elsewhere."
The SDLP minister has defended his decision.
Mr Attwood said: "The responsibility is to protect existing retail and its thousands of jobs as other retail opportunities emerge.
Clearly, I want to see other retailers come to Northern Ireland. But in doing so, I have to acknowledge the impact of retail proposals on Belfast and on other towns in the Greater Belfast area.
"The information and evidence provided by my Department to the Sprucefield Planning Inquiry put Belfast First in line with the Executives own Regional Development Strategy 2035 and current planning policy. This information was not provided arbitrarily.
"The information was shaped by agreed strategy and policy, which makes clear that in putting Belfast First, there should be precaution adopted in relation to other retail proposals."
The initial application for the 500,000 sq ft site was submitted nine years ago.
It included a joint venture between the Australian property firm of Westfield and a local developer, Snoddons.
Those opposed to it said it could devastate town centres, with some calling for it to be moved to Belfast, while backers claimed it would create potentially over 1,000 jobs, particularly at a time when business leaders believe there is little other investment on the horizon.
John Lewis says it has looked at its options but insists that Sprucefield is the only suitable location for new department store in Northern Ireland.
The planning application was due to be considered by the Planning Appeals Commission (PAC), however the companies behind it - known as The Sprucefield Centre Limited - said that they cannot proceed following the minister's announcement.
A statement said: "This decision follows the Minister for the Environment's recent announcement that he intends to change the current policy and now confine further development at Sprucefield to bulky goods only, therefore excluding the new John Lewis department store.
"With the deadline looming to submit evidence to the Planning Appeals Commission, The Sprucefield Centre Limited and John Lewis have been forced to accept that the uncertainty over BMAP planning policy means they cannot proceed to Inquiry at this time."
John Lewis has reiterated its continued interest in opening a new department store at Sprucefield.
Lisburn Mayor William Leathem said the move is a blow for the area.
"I am very annoyed and bitterly disappointed," the DUP man said.
"I would liken Minister Attwood's decision to playground tactics. If Belfast can't have it nowhere is going to have it. So the way things look Dublin is going to benefit from Minister Attwood's decision, taking all the investment, construction and retail jobs and of course shoppers away from Northern Ireland. Ludicrous does not cover it."
Local business leaders have urged the company to look at a new town or city centre location.
"We have always strongly supported John Lewis locating a store in a town or city centre site as opposed to an unsustainable out of town location," said Glyn Roberts from the NI Independent Retail Trade Association.
"Northern Ireland has not only the highest town centre shop vacancy rate in the UK, but twice the national average of nearly 1 in 4 shops empty
"An out of town John Lewis would have accelerated that decline further."
University of Ulster retail analyst Donald McFetridge said what has happened is a "retail travesty".
He continued: "The news that John Lewis is withdrawing their application for a store at Sprucefield is dreadful news for the economy in Northern Ireland and for NI consumers.
"It appears to me that Minister Attwood has got it all terribly wrong. This is not just a disaster in terms of the JLP store but also in terms of the signals it's sending out to other potential investors at a time when our economy needs more jobs and more inward investment."
UUP Environment spokesperson Tom Elliott described the outcome was a "shambles" and a "major blow for the Northern Ireland economy".
People will be astonished at the inability to deliver an estimated £150m injection into our economy, alongside a proposed 1,500 retail jobs.
Tom Elliott, UUP MLA
He said Mr Attwood's decision was the "latest unhelpful contribution" over a nine-year planning "fiasco".
"The chaos continues unabated with the First Minister and his colleague Jeffrey Donaldson MP telling us that the Executive can overrule Minister Attwood's decision, while the Environment Minister maintains that he has the final say on the matter," the Fermanagh and South Tyrone MLA said.
"It is therefore unsurprising that John Lewis have been left frustrated at the never-ending stream of confusing signals being sent out by one Planning Minister after another.
"Not only has Northern Ireland's planning system been shown to be not 'fit for purpose', it seems glaringly obvious to me that a succession of Planning Ministers have also been shown to be not 'fit for purpose'."
Sinn Féin urged John Lewis to continue making their case.
"I am disappointed at the decision by John Lewis to withdraw this particular planning application," said Phil Flanagan MLA, vice chair of the Enterprise Committee.
"There is certainly the debate surrounding the need to get the balance right between town centres and out of town developments such as this but the crucial test remains addressing issues such as maximising job creation, tackling disadvantage, infrastructural development and promoting equality.
"The overall decision making process has not been completed. All these considerations need to be factored into the remaining deliberations on this issue."