After three-way talks with a national retailer and shopping centre operator, an MP says he is “confident” Northern Ireland will soon get its first John Lewis store.
If fulfilled, Jeffrey Donaldson’s claim will mean the end of an 11-year struggle by the mainland retail chain to open premises at the Intu-owned Sprucefield retail park. “I am confident the prospect of bringing the first John Lewis to all of Ireland is greatly improved,” said the MP for Lagan Valley.
In January, 2013, the retailer withdrew its application for a store at the Sprucefield complex, next to the M1 motorway, after the then environment minister, Alex Attwood, ruled that future development should be restricted to “bulky goods” outlets.
Since Intu’s purchase of Sprucefield last year for £68m, Donaldson says he has had two “very positive” meetings with the operator and senior management at John Lewis and claims an amended planning application will be filed in the very near future. “The new planning application will be significantly different and has a much better prospect of being approved,” he added.
The MP declined to say how the new development would differ from previous schemes, but claimed: “Critics will find the new plans harder to oppose. When people see what is planned it will be much more difficult for those who object to its proposal,” he said. “We are certainly hopeful.”
Intu refused to comment on the plans. It did admit, however, that the MP’s comments were “correct”.
John Lewis remained more circumspect. Its spokesman would only say: “We are continuing to monitor developments in Northern Ireland and the next step is to await the outcome of the forthcoming judicial review challenge of the minister’s adoption of the Belfast Area Metropolitan Plan (BMap).”
The plan identifies planning zones for retail, residential or commercial development and is set to affect almost 40 per cent of the Northern Ireland population. It covers not just Belfast, but outlying areas such as Carrickfergus, Lisburn, Newtownabbey and north Down.
Last September the environment minister, Mark Durkan, gave his approval to the BMap, allegedly without the agreement of all other ministers. Within weeks his colleague, enterprise minister Arlene Foster, objected to his decision to act alone and demanded a judicial review.
The environment minister responded by saying he had adopted BMap in a bid to “create certainty in planning for the Greater Belfast area” and claimed that Foster’s legal action would “inevitably inject a renewed atmosphere of uncertainty”.