PLANS for a John Lewis store at Sprucefield could be in jeopardy after the Environment Minister said the retail park should only be used for furniture and electrical goods.
The application for the John Lewis development, which includes 19 other retail units, has been stuck in the planning system for several years.
A public inquiry was expected to be held early this year, however, the project is likely to have been dealt a fatal blow after Environment minister Alex Attwood confirmed a new area plan will limit further development at Sprucefield to “bulky goods” like furniture.
He said he was committed to putting “Belfast first” in “difficult times”.
“This is consistent with the revised Regional Development Strategy 2035 which aims to strengthen Belfast as the regional economic driver and the primary retail location in Northern Ireland,” he added.
“My decision today will support that, as evidence indicates a high vacancy rate.
“I intend to take a precautionary approach to retailing.
“I also want to see Lisburn city centre and other town centres in the (Belfast) metropolitan area taking additional retail floorspace.
“Sprucefield will play a key role as a regional centre which will complement rather than compete with Belfast and existing city and town centres.
“That is why I have decided to restrict future retailing at Sprucefield to bulky goods only.”
The DUP MP for Lagan Valley Jeffrey Donaldson said that he regretted the line the minister was taking.
He said that if the development did not go ahead at Sprucefield, it was likely that John Lewis would site their store in the Irish Republic.
“We need to get real here and this notion that the choice is between Belfast and Sprucefield is not right,” he said.
“Talk to John Lewis, they want a large outlet in Northern Ireland, they want it in Sprucefield where there is a catchment area of two million people, Belfast hasn’t got that.
“Their next choice for a location is Dublin, not Belfast.”
Objectors have said the scale of the Sprucefield project would damage town centres, supporters have said it will bring jobs.
It is understood the new policy will effectively kill the chances of a John Lewis store on the site near the city of Lisburn.
The planned development at Sprucefield was said to have been one and a half times the size of the Castlecourt shopping centre in Belfast.
But fans of the popular retailer need not lose hope.
The developers behind the stalled Royal Exchange Scheme in Belfast are still hoping to persuade John Lewis into the city.
The latest Sprucefield plans are set to be considered by the Planning Appeals Commission (PAC) in April.
It will consider if there are any obstacles to the resumption of a public inquiry and to discuss dates.
A planning application for the 500,000 sq ft development was first made in 2004.
Although it is most associated with the department store John Lewis, the application has been made by the developer Sprucefield Centre Ltd.
It is a joint venture between the Australian property firm Westfield and the local developer Snoddons.
John Lewis have committed to being the anchor tenant at the development.
The project has faced a series of legal challenges from some Lisburn traders who fear it could damage city-centre shopping.
Rival retail landlords have also opposed it.
Mr Attwood said on Friday that he wanted to stress that he was not “reopening the debate on any policy issues”.
He also said he was not attempting to prejudice the outcome of the public inquiry in April.
“That planning application remains to be considered carefully following the PAC inquiry report,” he added.
“All the relevant issues within the public inquiry report will be interrogated carefully before a final ministerial decision is made.”
More reaction in the print edition of the Ulster Star - out on Friday.