Northern Ireland

Minister's planning changes ruled unlawful

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

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.


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.

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.


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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