Northern Ireland

John Lewis, Sprucefield: Court ruling could lead to new store

John Lewis Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption John Lewis has almost 50 stores in the UK but none in Northern Ireland

A High Court ruling has paved the way for a John Lewis store at Sprucefield near Lisburn, County Antrim.

It follows a court case in March which found Belfast Metropolitan Area Plan (BMAP) planning policy had been adopted unlawfully.

BMAP restricted future expansion at Sprucefield to bulky goods only - an obstacle to a John Lewis department store.

However, the restriction has now effectively been lifted.

On Friday, a judge ruled that the rest of BMAP can now be implemented, declaring it a "fair, just and proportionate" remedy.

A spokesperson for John Lewis said: "We do not have any current plans to open a shop in the province."

Intu, the UK-property company which owns the Sprucefield site said: "We plan to study this judgement carefully.

"Until then we are really not in a position to comment."


Analysis by BBC NI Business Correspondent Julian O'Neill

The court has removed a significant barrier to John Lewis, but no one should expect sudden action.

This is already a saga which has run for more than ten years.

Firstly, there is the prospect of a legal challenge to the court ruling.

Secondly, there are other policies around out-of-town retail developments versus a cities-first strategy.

Thirdly, there are the intentions of the Sprucefield site owners, Intu, and John Lewis.

What are they?

Neither party has said much in response to the ruling.

John Lewis saw profits slump earlier this year and is assessing what it means for expanding its 48 stores.

So while the court move is important, the issue is far from settled.


Welcoming the verdict, Lagan Valley MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said renewed attempts will now be made to attract John Lewis to Sprucefield.

But Belfast City Council immediately announced its intention to appeal the outcome amid concerns for the impact on the retail sector.

Earlier this year, a High Court judge held that former SDLP Environment Minister Mark H Durkan acted unilaterally and unlawfully in authorising BMAP without securing consent from executive colleagues.

Mr Durkan's approval of the planning framework adopted in 2014 was challenged by the DUP's Arlene Foster, who was the Stormont enterprise minister at the time.

But following the assembly elections in May, agreement was reached by newly created departments on the way forward in the legal action.

Simon Hamilton, the DUP Economy Minister, and Sinn Féin Minister for Infrastructure Chris Hazzard, agreed on a proposal to have BMAP adopted without the bulky goods restriction.

In a joint statement, both ministers welcomed the court's decision, saying it would provide "certainty" for communities, councils and investors.

But a barrister for Belfast City Council urged the judge against rubber stamping the draft order.

Image caption A judge held in March that former SDLP Environment Minister Mark H Durkan acted unilaterally and unlawfully in authorising the BMAP without consent from his Executive colleagues.

He argued that it would involve the court veering into the area of creating planning policy.

However, a barrister who brought the original challenge on behalf of the enterprise minister, claimed that Mr Durkan should not be allowed to get away with "going on a solo run".

He said: "If correct that would drive a coach and horses through the Northern Ireland Act and would be a charter for ministers to effectively chance their arm and hope for the best later on."

Despite Belfast City Council's objections, the judge agreed to make the declaration sought by the two departments.

Announcing the council's intention to appeal the judgment, Councillor John Hussey said it raises important issues about the role of the courts in sanctioning changes to planning policy, when the original complaint was that a minister acted unlawfully.

"This is not about Belfast versus anywhere else," he said.

"Neglecting Belfast will have an adverse effect on the economy of Northern Ireland as a whole."

Welcome

But Sir Jeffrey, the DUP MP in whose constituency the Sprucefield retail park area is situated, predicted a new planning application would be submitted by the site's owners INTU.

"The restriction should never have been placed on Sprucefield in the first instance - I'm pleased it's now been removed.

"We will certainly be looking to attract John Lewis into the park as part of future development," he added.

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