Page last updated at 15:39 GMT, Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Inquiry to probe John Lewis plan

John Lewis store
The proposed development has been opposed by traders in other towns

A public inquiry is to examine a planning application which includes a major John Lewis department store outside Lisburn.

The announcement, made by Environment Minister Sammy Wilson on Wednesday, has been welcomed by John Lewis.

The owners of a retail centre at Sprucefield have been trying to get approval for the store since 2004.

The 150m project, which includes 19 other retail units, has been repeatedly blocked by legal actions.

A re-drafted planning application was submitted almost six months ago.

On Wednesday, Mr Wilson said: "I have considered the options available to me and I am satisfied that the best way forward is through the public inquiry procedure."

"In making this decision I am conscious of the importance of new inward investment and the potential for employment associated with the proposal, particularly in the current economic climate.

"I will therefore be asking the Planning Appeals Commission to give this matter a high priority."

'Powerful message'

Lagan Valley MP Jeffrey Donaldson said there was nothing to fear from the development.

"A public inquiry will afford all interested parties the opportunity to share their views and discuss the issue," he said.

"The commencement of this project will send out a powerful message that Northern Ireland is open for business."

However, the chief executive of the Northern Ireland Retail Trade Association said he hoped the inquiry "would not be rushed".

Environment Minister Sammy Wilson announced the public inquiry

"We hope that the inquiry will not be seen as a mere tick-the-box exercise, with a predetermined outcome already agreed," Glyn Roberts said.

"Our bottom line is we want to see local traders thrive in Lisburn city centre, and we don't want to see them in any way disadvantaged by this development."

The proposed development has been opposed by traders in Lisburn, Belfast, Banbridge and Craigavon.

A spokesman for John Lewis said the developers, Westfield, saw an inquiry as the "most transparent and equitable route for all parties in determining the application".

"Throughout what has been a long and protracted planning process, John Lewis has remained fully committed to opening a full-line department store at Sprucefield, delivering a significant retail and employment boost to NI as a whole," he said.

"We see today's news as an opportunity to get this important 150million development back on track."

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