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.