Sorry John Lewis, but 'town centre first' policy must be adhered to

Will we ever see a John Lewis opening in Northern Ireland - either at Sprucefield or Belfast?

MUCH has changed in the 10 years or so since John Lewis announced an intention to establish a first store in Northern Ireland, with Sprucefield as the apparently preferred destination. Changes in the global and local economy, changes in the nature of retail and the way people shop, including the unabated rise of online shopping, and changes too in the nature of our political system and make up.

But one thing which hasn't changed - and shouldn't - is the requirement for local planning policy to put town centres first and the need to protect and promote the primacy of Belfast as the driver of the regional economy.

The John Lewis Sprucefield/Belfast saga came back onto the agenda at the end of last week when the High Court followed a ruling in March that the previous Environment Minister Mark Durkan had acted unlawfully in formally adopting the BMAP policy which stated that only bulky good items could be sold at Sprucefield.

The two ministers with direct responsibility for planning and economic development, Chris Hazzard and Simon Hamilton, quickly moved to issue a joint statement which appears to facilitate a new application which could see John Lewis in Sprucefield. With that kind of joined up political approach it seems that the department store is closer than ever to picking and choosing the exact location of its store here, notwithstanding the planning policy of the day.

The local MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said that Northern Ireland is ‘not a dictatorship' and we can't tell developers or retailers where they can or cannot locate. With respect, though, isn't that exactly what our politicians, policy-makers and law-makers should be doing? Of course investment is welcome, and we should be seeing to attract new business into Northern Ireland, but on our own terms.

The opposite would involve business dictating to councils where they are going to locate, without the slightest consideration for policy or the rationale behind such policy. If BMAP was still fully in place, and was effectively blocking a Sprucefield option for John Lewis and they in turn threatened to abandon all plans to come here, then fine, let that be the case.

Belfast City Council has stated an intention to appeal the decision of the High Court. While it is hard to see what legal route may be open to Council, given that the court has simply facilitated an agreement between two government departments, in principle they are absolutely right to pursue all avenues. Planning policy should be set by elected representatives in local councils and the Executive departments, not by judges.

While one specific element of BMAP related to Sprucefield, the overriding Strategic Planning Policy Statement for Northern Ireland still says that town centres should come first when considering applications for large retail stores, and that policy exists for a reason. As pointed out by the NI Independent Retail Traders Association, our town and city centres are in deep trouble and are in need of a policy intervention.

We have the highest level of town centre dereliction in the UK with the highest number of shop vacancies. Drive town main arterial routes in Belfast and many other towns across the region and you are more likely to see pained pretend shop fronts than real retail outlets.

You have probably heard of the so called ‘donut effect', whereby out-of-town development leads to an empty city centre business district, and flourishing edge of town developments. There are significant pockets of Belfast city centre which are derelict, and seemingly have been for some years. Dereliction can be infectious and while the scenario of a run down Belfast, with more charity shops and vacant units than a thriving mixed retail offering, may be an exaggeration, it is not impossible to foresee.

If Belfast falters commercially then Northern Ireland will suffer, all of Northern Ireland. A successful Belfast drives attracts more investment, drives business rates and brings additional visitors and attractions to the region.

If the overall planning policy for the region emphasis a ‘town centre first' approach, then that policy should be applied. And if John Lewis continues to refuse to adhere to our existing planning policy, they should be left to battle their declining sales revenues in GB stores and online.

Last week's ruling does not mean that a John Lewis development at Sprucefield is inevitable. As a retail business they have faced a slump in sales and there is a question mark in the retail sector as to whether they intend to increase their total of 48 stores. There is an continuing move toward online sales which is a real challenge not only to John Lewis but to bricks and mortar outlets everywhere.

Given the appetite in Northern Ireland for never-ending legal challenges, a further day in court cannot be ruled out, and so far neither John Lewis nor the owners of the Sprucefield site has said anything.

There may be a few more annual John Lewis Christmas ads to be enjoyed or endured before shoppers can head to Sprucefield to spend their money in the store. Meanwhile, happy Christmas shopping folks, and don't forget to support your local retailers.

:: Brendan Mulgrew is managing partner of MW Advocate. Twitter: @brendanbelfast

:: Next week: Jamie Delargy

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