PLANNING permission for the development of a major retail park at the site of the former Unipork factory in Enniskillen has been approved after opinion drew level but was decided by the casting vote of the committee Chair.

In December, members of Fermanagh and Omagh District Council's Planning Committee had deferred a decision around permission that Elm Grange Limited is seeking for the development on the outskirts of Enniskillen of a £15.5 million investment, capable of creating 450 new jobs.

Entitled ‘Lakelands Retail Park’, the earmarked Unipork site is around one mile from the town centre, which has lain vacant for 20 years.

The development proposal comprises six retail units, a 54-bedroom hotel, cinema, bowling alley, petrol station, food outlet as well as more than 750 parking spaces.

So far, The Range and Moviebowl had confirmed occupancy if permission for the development was granted.

However, planners initially recommended that the application should be refused.

On learning of this and ahead of the committee meeting, the developer launched an online petition, quickly gathering more than 1,000 signatures, calling on councillors to go against the planners's stance.

It is claimed the venture could led to annual salaries of around £3.5 million and accrue almost £750,000 in Council rates.

When considering the impact of the development, the committee looked at the proposal and what it was intended to do.

This included a suggested anchor tenant which would be selling goods similar to those already available in existing shops and according to a planning official: "Even if they didn’t, it’s likely traders from the application site are going to directly compete with business inside the town centre."

The official pointed out Enniskillen has a high percentage of small retail and independent businesses, which would be more vulnerable to impacts such as an economic downturn, and internet or out-of-town shopping.

There is currently an 14.2 per cent vacant retail unit rate in Enniskillen, which is above the UK average of 11.3 per cent.

Recommending refusal, the planning official pointed out a referral site has been identified as suitable for the development in question, and the applicant had not demonstrated sufficient flexibility in their approach.

It was also asserted there would be a significant adverse impact on the trade and turnover in the town centre and its vitality and viability.

At the first Planning Committee meeting of the new Council term, under the new Chairmanship of Councillor Glen Campbell, members heard again from those both in support and against the application, with the Planning Officer repeating the recommendation for refusal.

However, Sinn Fein’s Councillor Tommy Maguire went against this and, proposing approval, said: “This application met most of the criteria [for approval] and we were left with four reasons for refusal.

"The town centre of Enniskillen is very limited in size and is effectively not much bigger than the island of Enniskillen, which we are all so proud of as the only island town in Ireland.”

Querying how the application had been designated as ‘out-of-town', he said it is less than a mile from the town centre, pointing out it is right beside a neighbourhood renewal area, which indicates a level of deprivation.

He added: “I know it’s not a planning consideration, but as councillors we can’t not consider the financial benefits which would potentially come for the immediate vicinity. This is something major.”

Approval was seconded by party colleague, Councillor Anthony Feely.

In contrast, Councillor Robert Irvine, Ulster Unionist, proposed members support the Planning Officer’s recommendation to refuse.

He said: “I take a contrary opinion. This site isn’t within the primary retail core, irrespective of the distance.

"Enniskillen is quite a large town. My wife is a shopper and I go along with her and her friends.

"They find Enniskillen to be one of about four unique towns in the whole of Northern Ireland because of the tapestry of privately-owned shops that provide a service right across the board, as well as the amount of hostelries and eateries.

"You would go far and wide to find as diverse a range of places to eat out, and all within the area of the town centre.”

Councillor Irvine continued: “I can see where the applicants and their agents are coming from, but I believe our [planning] officers have taken the right course.

"On the balance of evidence provided I am willing to go with the officers's recommendation and refuse the application.”

This was seconded by party colleague, Councillor John McClaughry.

The Chair put the matter to a vote, which came in level, with five in favour and five against.

Using his casting vote, Councillor Campbell supported the application, tipping the scales in favour of approval.