John Lewis, Belfast, and lack of ambition

The debate around the John Lewis Sprucefield development is much more complex than is being presented. It is important that this debate focus on the actual choice the Northern Ireland Executive has, and not on the fake choices some are suggesting it has.

Firstly, the question is whether a huge retail development – including John Lewis but not only John Lewis – should be given planning permission for Sprucefield. The question is NOT where John Lewis should locate in Northern Ireland – John Lewis *always* operates as an anchor store in large developments and the only large development proposed in Northern Ireland is at Sprucefield.

Let us be very clear about why Belfast City Centre is not an option:
– John Lewis has made no offer to invest in Belfast City Centre, presumably because it would not be profitable (it is the job of politicians and officials to judge the value of proposed investments in Northern Ireland, but NOT to determine where an investor can make a profit – that is the investor’s business!);
– Belfast City Centre is already far, far too reliant on retail, with proportionately  more retail premises vacant there than in most comparable cities across the UK; and
– Belfast City Centre is introducing a heavy emphasis on public transport – deliberately designed specifically to restrict vehicles, such as vans and lorries which would be needed for a delivery service (as operated by John Lewis) or private cars necessary for “click and collect” for large items (as sold by John Lewis).
In other words, Belfast City Centre is the last place a store like John Lewis would wish to locate – and is being made deliberately so through its promotion of public transport over private or commercial vehicles. (I personally have no problem at all with that, by the way.)

So, this makes an out-of-town location within Greater Belfast the obvious site for a major development involving John Lewis. Sprucefield, based within that area but also on the Belfast-Dublin corridor, is the obvious place.

But do we want a massive retail development (bigger than Victoria Square) so far away from residential and leisure opportunities? I can see why some people do not. It does promote the idea of “ghost towns”, seemingly soulless places where people congregate to pressurise the credit card still further in national and international chains. This is certainly not the type of investment which will enhance Northern Ireland’s community feel; nor is it one which will encourage export-based wealth creation. The “1500 jobs” quoted are surely an overestimate; and even of those which would arise, most would essentially be “relocated” rather than strictly “created”. On the evidence of the planning case alone, the answer is surely “no”.

Yet this omits a true vision for Belfast. I have long said, on this blog, that Belfast needs to be not a city of 270,000, but of 720,000. Far from arguing whether the City Council should include or exclude Dunmurry, the real question is whether it should include Glengormley, Holywood or, indeed, Sprucefield. For too long, the focus of the city has expanded eastwards, towards Stormont, even with recent developments at Titanic. In fact, the most sensible expansion is southwestwards, along the Belfast-Dublin corridor. A wider “Lagan Gateway” masterplan – including the “Maze Heritage and Learning Centre”, the “Sprucefield Shopping Village” linked by a rates-free “Technology and Innovation Park” and perhaps an expanded “Culcavy Garden Village” aimed at young professionals and young families would make *a lot* of sense in 2030…

It is entirely legitimate to favour or disfavour the idea of a large retail development at Sprucefield; what is not legitimate is to try to guide investors to sites where they obviously cannot make a profit. However, what this really shows is the complete lack of ambition we have for Greater Belfast. It is that which we need to overcome, before our economy simply ceases to function altogether.


12 thoughts on “John Lewis, Belfast, and lack of ambition

  1. harryaswell says:

    I could not agree more! BUT, is this all a deliberate plot by Sinn Fein to destroy the NI economy so as to make a United, bankrupt, Ireland, a more agreeable option?

  2. Kenny says:

    I suggest that you investigate John Lewis in Glasgow, anchor tenant in large development in the city centre. Directions to 2 car parks provided and with a bit of planning the same could be done for Belfast.

    • Any links? Would be interested.

      • Kenny says:

        Hi Ian, apologies for not getting back sooner. The other comments are points well made and which I agree with. In any case here’s some links for Glasgow and Edinburgh which might be useful.


        From these there are a number of common aspects
        • Located in the city centre
        • Seems to be high-end, quality centres
        • bus stations are a short distance away
        • and in the case of Edinburgh the new Tram line will but a short walk away (when it’s built)
        • centre has car parking – but is not the main driver (pun intended)
        • the JL store and associated centre are used to promote the city and region
        • all part of the experience of visiting those cities

        I happen to agree with you that there should be strategic planning for the Greater Belfast region. Strategic planning starts with a clear vision of where you want to be in 20/30 years and to have a plan to achieve that vision, i.e. fitting the jigsaw. As a people I do not think we do particularly well when it comes to strategic thinking, it’s all tactical, point scoring and short-term. You certainly can see that in the political field – sorry.

        The vision for greater Belfast should include a vibrant city centre, with people living in the inner city, busy both during the day evening/night. The provision of the Royal Exchange should form one part of the jigsaw.

        From a commercial perspective JL are very likely to view the Irish market (in the geographic sense) as having opportunities in 2 to 3 cities; Belfast, Dublin and perhaps Cork, very much akin to Scotland. The argument that we are losing the store to Dublin does seem tenable to me. The location of a central distribution point, and which may be co-located with a store at Sprucefield may be argument but are we really saying that regional planning policy will be formulated (or set aside)on the basis of the jobs a distribution centre would bring?

        For once, I think a minister has made the right strategic decision for the benefit of all. It is the right planning policy and decision.

        In considering a wider strategic planning/thinking for Greater Belfast region we should seek to learn (positive / negative) from the other Irish cities and from our close cousins in Scotland (eg the 1st Edinburgh link). They are of a similar size, background and rural/city mix.

        Unfortunately we have missed out on the opportunities a single stadium would’ve brought (Titantic or Boucher Road as poss locations) and we are in the process of making other mistakes on housing, guided bus and the railways. At the minute it all seems very ‘bitty’ and segregated in +1 quarters. Is here an overall plan? We should have:
        • an active policy of increasing the mixed use of the city centre, through housing, location of hotels, restaurants and good commutation links at weekends & night.
        • Trams instead of guided buses; the impact of the LUAS (which is self-financing now) and I predict the Edinburgh tram system) cannot be understated. They are, and will, a great morale, physiological boost for how people regard themselves and their city as well as improving the service and a good selling point
        • Tram system should have phased plans (for an extended period) and to include lines to Dundonald (E), Carryduff (S), and Crumlin (W) – Carrick (N) has a train service
        • Rail links to airports (tram or mainline)

        Hope you find this of some use.


      • Great stuff, many thanks!

  3. factual says:

    In Cambridge John Lewis have opened a city centre store, while in Oxford – a city that is punitive to motorists – it has applied to open one right in the city centre (Westgate).

    John Lewis are not going to admit that they might open one in the city centre when they have a preferred option out of town. But there is no doubt that they are happy to open in city centres in cities smaller – and more punitive to drivers – than Belfast. So I don’t think its obvious that they wouldn’t in Belfast.

    • It’s entirely obvious in Belfast because both main centres already have anchor tenants.

      There is no prospect of another one, nor should we encourage it.

      (By the way, even a John Lewis in the City Centre would kill “local traders”, just as Victoria Square has. The specific advantage is to the hospitality sector, not other retail.)

    • harryaswell says:

      The size of the site may be OK, but what about parking? Space to call and collect goods bought? Space for John Lewis’ own trucks delivering stock? For customers collecting goods bought on the Internet? – Not only that, Sprucefield is far more convenient for customers coming from the Republic and the rest of Northern Ireland. John Lewis are correctly interested in profit. Attwood has been “got at” by developers obviously. John Lewis will, eventually, give up and take their store to Dublin, were they already do have high profile sites they can use. We don’t want to lose them over trivialities.

  4. Seamus says:

    From what I’ve heard, John Lewis are still considering the option of opening a department store in the Royal Exchange development while also having a ‘John Lewis Home’ store at Sprucefield, which would fit the planning restrictions for ‘bulky goods’. This is in addition to them opening a store in Dublin which is planned to be the company’s first strategic international expansion and has been in the works for some time. Seems like a win-win outcome to me.

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