Minister's planning changes ruled unlawful

Sammy Wilson The former Environment Minister, DUP MLA Sammy Wilson, is now Minister for Finance.

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The High Court has ruled that the former Environment Minister, Sammy Wilson, acted unlawfully when he changed planning policy.

The case was brought by a retail group opposed to plans to build a John Lewis store at Sprucefield near Lisburn.

The court heard that Mr Wilson told planners to give more weight to economic considerations in planning.

The ruling could have significant implications for large-scale planning applications in Northern Ireland.

'Hurdles'

The plans for the flagship John Lewis store at Sprucefield have been the subject of controversy since they were first announced in 2004, as part of an expansion of the exisiting retail park.

Since then, traders from rival retail centres including the Bow Street Mall in Lisburn and the Rushmere Shopping Centre in Craigavon have launched several legal actions opposing the development.

John Lewis planning problems

  • June 2004 - plans are announced for the first John Lewis store on the island of Ireland to be built at Sprucefield, near Lisburn.
  • Nov 2004 - Belfast's Chamber of Trade and Commerce lodges a formal objection to the planning application.
  • June 2005 - Direct rule minister, Lord Rooker, gives the green light for the John Lewis store and 29 other outlets at Sprucefield.
  • May 2006 - Belfast High Court upholds a legal challenge from traders in Belfast and Lisburn, effectively quashing planning permission for the £40m development.
  • Aug 2008 - The developer submits new plans, reducing the number of retail outlets from 29 to 19 and vows to move south of the border if the revised plan is rejected.
  • Feb 2009 - Environment Minister Sammy Wilson announces a public inquiry into the application.
  • June 2010 - The public inquiry is adjourned on its first day due to a new legal challenge by rival traders who allege the DoE failed to advertise the scheme properly.

On Friday, the company which owns Rushmere Shopping Centre - Central Craigavon Limited - argued that statements made by Mr Wilson in May and June of last year were designed to increase the weight given to the economic benefit of proposed development.

The company opposes the John Lewis store on the grounds that creating a fourth retail hub within a 30 mile corridor from Belfast to Craigavon would be excessive.

Its lawyers said that the changes Mr Wilson had outlined in his statements lowered the hurdles the Sprucefield scheme would have to clear.

'Difficulty'

But the Department of the Environment's legal team argued the statements merely offered clarification and guidance within an existing and well established policy framework and did not amount to a change in planning policy.

However, Mr Justice Treacy disagreed and said they went beyond mere advice or information aimed at resolving a difficulty.

"They were plainly intended, particularly in the case of the economic statement, to bring about a material change in the way planning applications were determined and to influence the outcome," the judge said.

He ruled there should have been a public consultation on any change of such significance and quashed the statements.

The BBC asked the Department of Environment for a response to Friday's ruling but no-one was available for comment.

Meanwhile, a separate legal challenge to the John Lewis store, which centres on the impact the development would have on badgers, bats and newts at the site, was adjourned at the High Court on Friday to resume nest week.

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