Given that there is no application from John Lewis for a planning proposal at present, I will have to try to read the Member’s mind. Since he is here more often than the previous Member who spoke, that will be easy to do.
I assume that the Member is referring to the application that was made by Sprucefield Centre Ltd. That application is undergoing the statutory consultation. A request for further environmental information was lodged with the applicant on 2 December 2008. That information has not yet been provided, but I hope that it will be made available soon.
The stage 1 retail report that followed the BMAP inquiry must also be taken into consideration, and the Planning Appeals Commission indicated to me that it hopes to be in a position to provide that report some time in early 2009. I interpret that as meaning some time this month, so time is running out. The Planning Service will report to me shortly thereafter.
The application is not, of course, directly comparable with that which was made for IKEA, given the differences in the scale and nature of the retailing that is proposed and the locations of each site with reference to the statutory development plans.
I thank the Minister for his answer, given that the question was slightly wrong.
Given the fact that planning permission for IKEA was approved within about eight months, what assurance can the Minister give us that the application in the name of Sprucefield Centre Ltd will proceed with all speed? Is he minded to recommend a public inquiry?
I want to see that application proceed with all speed. The Member and others will know that I have said to the Planning Service that we ought to try to put applications — especially those that are for important economic developments — through the system within the six-month period on which we have made promises.
On the matter of a public inquiry, given that it is my responsibility and role to consider all the evidence that the Planning Service will present to me in its report, the Member knows that I would not prejudge the issue, and I will wait until that report comes. However, I assure the Member that I have asked the Planning Service to bring the report to me as soon as possible after it has the information from the Planning Appeals Commission and from the applicant on the environmental statement. I will make a quick decision on that application because I understand how important it is.
Further to that answer, does the Minister recognise that he may have a conflict of interest, given that the final decision rests with him, but that unlike his predecessors, he has chosen to remain a member of Belfast City Council’s town planning committee? Given that we all want John Lewis to come here quickly, would it not be safer for him to recognise that and take steps to regularise his position?
During a debate last week, the Member admitted that I am capable of exercising independence in making decisions. Given that he gave my independence a glowing reference, I am sure that he will rest easy in the knowledge that I will consider all the facts that are presented to me and that I will assess them objectively.
I hope that I have already given that assurance. However, I express one caveat. The speed with which I can make that decision does not rest totally in my hands or in the hands of the Planning Service. The Department is waiting for a response from the Planning Appeals Commission, which, as the Member knows, is independent of my Department. I have asked my officials for a report as soon as they receive that information, so that I can make a decision. I am aware of the importance of outside investment to Northern Ireland and the role that that can play in creating jobs at a time when the recession is causing difficulties.