Minister hits out after new legal moves again threaten John Lewis inquiry

ENVIRONMENT Minister Edwin Poots is to meet the boss of House of Fraser to urge his company to let the public inquiry into the John Lewis development at Sprucefield go ahead after yet another legal application was lodged this week which threatens the start of the inquiry next week.

Mr Poots blasted opponents of the scheme, who he said had always called for a public inquiry, for now repeatedly going to the courts to try and halt it.

His harsh criticism comes after groups including House of Fraser went back to court again this week seeking leave for a judicial review which, if granted, could again delay the public inquiry, which is scheduled to commence on Tuesday. The inquiry was also postponed in June.

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"In my opinion the grounds for seeking a judicial review are wholly tenuous and should not be sustained," said Mr Poots. "Most people will see that this is merely a delaying tactic.

"It is very clear in my mind and the minds of the senior people in the Planning Service that the public inquiry should go ahead. Everyone asked for a public inquiry, including the opponents. The go ahead for a public inquiry was given a year and a half ago but those opposing it have engaged in tactics which stop the public inquiry being heard.

"I am very clearly of the opinion that they are clogging up the entire planning process for commercial interests."

Mr Poots went on to confirm that he would be meeting the boss of House of Fraser this week and would be urging him to halt his opposition to the public inquiry.

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"I will be meeting with John King from House of Fraser and I will indicate to him I believe as a company they should disengage themselves from it and allow the public inquiry to be heard and allow the decision making process to continue."

He continued: "I trust our legal system would recognise the motive here is not environmental, the motive is purely commercial.

"It isn't the job of the courts to act as a guard dog for one commercial interest."

Local politicians have also urged the Planning Appeals Commission to continue with the public inquiry next week, despite the latest legal moves which centre around an enviornmental statement.

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MLA Paul Givan has called on those behind the legal moves to stop their action and allow everyone to put their case forward through the public inquiry.

"I would appeal to the Planning Appeals Commission to go ahead with the public inquiry and not be put off by these delaying tactics," said Mr Givan. "Given that the public inquiry was postponed in June and to postpone it again would be perverse.

"There is nothing in this legal case that could or should prevent the public inquiry from taking place."

MLA Paul Butler also warned that John Lewis's plans could be in danger because of the opposition. "Those opposed to John Lewis locating at Sprucefield should seriously consider the consequences of their actions," said Mr Butler.

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"John Lewis are, I believe, at the point of losing patience with both our planning and legal systems and the reality is they may well decide to cut their losses and focus their attention of developing a store in the south of Ireland. John Lewis's development plans will bring significant benefits to the north of Ireland. Over 2,000 job opportunities, both in construction and retail services would be made available through this development going ahead. In the present economic climate this would be a welcome boost to the economy especially the construction industry."

The Chairman of the Council's Planning Committee, Councillor Ronnie Crawford, also critcised the opponents for attempts to delay the public inquiry which he said were designed 'to delay and frustrate this huge investment in Northern Ireland,'.

"It seems that the objectors are prepared to spend significant sums in legal fees to keep delaying work on the store. It is pure commercial protectionism and a fear of the public hearing where all the objections can be considered.

"The public inquiry should proceed and the environmental issues with which the objectors claim to be so important can be adjudicated on later," he concluded.