The Department of Infrastructure has informed Fermanagh and Omagh District Council that the direction to stay the granting of planning permission for the Lakelands Retail Park in Enniskillen, no longer applies.

The application passed by a whisker during a meeting of the council’s Planning Committee in June 2021 after an equal division for and against the proposed development, but the casting vote of Chair, Councillor Glen Campbell, tipped the scales.

The application relates to the development of the former Unipork factory site in Enniskillen by Elm Grange Limited and involving a £15.5m investment capable of creating 450 new jobs.

The 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 have confirmed they will occupy the site if permission is granted.

However, planners recommended members refuse the application.

On learning of this, and ahead of the determining committee meeting, the developer launched an online petition, gathering more than 1,000 signatures calling on councillors to go against that advice.

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

During discussions among Planning Committee members there was demonstrable opposition by Unionist groupings, while Sinn Fein and an Independent were firmly in favour.

Reaction to approval was mixed, with some delighted to hear that the former factory site would be developed having lay vacant for over 20 years, while others were furious, pointing to the decimation of existing businesses in the town centre area.

But the committee’s decision was quickly thrown into doubt as within days the Department called a halt and prevented approval of the application until further notice. Section 29 of the Planning Act (NI) 2011 gives the Department power to ‘call in’ planning applications.

A spokesperson said: “A ‘holding direction’ was issued on June 24 2021, to Fermanagh and Omagh District Council under the provisions of Article 17 of Planning Order (NI) 2015. This is to allow the Department time to consider whether or not the proposed Lakelands Retail Park development in Enniskillen raises issues that require the application to be called-in for further consideration and determination.”

Matters appeared to lie dormant but then, just three months shy of a year later, the Chief Planner and Director of Regional Planning Angus Kerr wrote to council advising the Holding Direction no longer applied.

He explained: “After careful consideration the Department has decided it is not necessary to call-in for determination. The Department is of the view that this application does not raise issues of such importance that their impact is considered to extend to a regional or sub-regional level and the circumstances of this case are not exceptional, such as to render the use of powers of the Planning Act 2011.”

Mr Kerr concluded: “The Holding Direction is no longer in place and council can continue to process the application accordingly … While the Department does not require the application to be referred to it for determination, should council proceed to approve, it may wish to satisfy itself in relation to any consultee matters and relevant conditions to be attached.”

The original proposer to approve planning permission Sinn Fein’s Councillor Tommy Maguire welcomed the Departmental letter telling members: “It’s been quite a while coming, but I’m delighted with the outcome. We look forward to matters proceeding.”