John Lewis inquiry finally set for April

THE long-awaited Public Inquiry into the John Lewis development at Sprucefield could finally begin in April, Environment Minister Edwin Poots has said.

The inquiry was was due to start last November but was dramatically halted weeks before when it emerged the Environmental Statement had been submitted by the developers after the deadline.

The application was then re-submitted by Westfield, and marked as a matter of priority for the PAC. The Minister has now confirmed that the inquiry is on course to begin at the end of April.

Mr Poots said: "The application was referred to the PAC, which would normally take 20 weeks, and working on that timescale it will be in and around April/ May time. As we understand it, everything is in order.

"Obviously the scale of the development is major, that's why a public inquiry must be held so they can decide within a wide range of issues. The applicant actually requested to have a public inquiry on it after two direct rule Ministers gave it the go-ahead only for it to be overturned by a judicial review.

"The Planning Appeals Commission has quasi-legal powers which should make their decision less likely to be challenged," he said.

The announcement means that a decision on the controversial 150m Sprucefield Park expansion could be made by summer, once the Planning Appeals Commission (PAC) makes its recommendations following the inquiry.

The scheme, if approved, would provide up to 1,000 jobs.Planning permission was originally granted for the proposal by Lord Jeff Rooker in 2005, but was overturned following a legal challenge by traders in Belfast and Lisburn city centres. The revised scheme has seen a cut in the number of retail units from 29 to 19.

The final decision on the plan will be made by the Minister once his department receives the PAC's recommendation. Mr Poots has said he will "consider all the facts here before arriving at a decision."

Lagan Valley MP Jeffrey Donaldson re-iterated his support for the scheme. He said: "The saga has run on for a long time now, but thankfully despite the opposition we have managed to get to this stage again," he said.

"The project offers potentially up to 1,000 jobs and millions of pounds of investment which is clearly very important for the local economy. It will enhance the competitiveness of Northern Ireland and the capacity to attract even more shoppers from south of the border."