Traders force DoE Planning into embarrassing U-turn

January 28, 2013

By Christine Keighery

Five prominent Hill Street traders were feeling triumphant last Friday when their campaign to highlight their anger at being taken to court by the Planning Service prompted the intervention of Environment Minister Alex Attwood, who overturned the “ridiculous” action.

The Newry businessmen had been threatened with legal action by the Planning Service who issued the men with a summons to appear in court next month in connection with a “Welcome back to Hill Street” banner which the traders had erected after the disruption caused by the Public Realm Scheme which took place on Hill Street and Monaghan Street last year.

So incensed were the retailers by the action of the Planning Department that they took to Facebook to vent their anger.  Declan McChesney, owner of Cahill Brothers shoes, who had been issued the summons along with Jack Murphy, Gerard Rice and Mick and David Downey, posted a plea on the social media site last Thursday urging local people to spread the word about what he described as a “mad” decision by planners.

The post sparked a deluge of outrage and disbelief from local people, with many branding the Planning Service’s decision “a disgrace.” Within hours, a Support for Newry Traders page was created, where more local consumers and business people expressed their solidarity with the traders and voiced their anger at the court action.

With the issue dominating the local grapevine for most of Friday, The Examiner approached the Department of the Environment for a response to the debacle.

In an embarrassing u-turn, Minister Alex Attwood informed us of his intervention in the matter saying:

“I became aware of this issue this morning. Planning should not have issued these summonses. I instructed Planning that the cases are not to be proceeded with and the Department will advise the courts in due course.

“Government needs to help the retail industry, local and small traders, in particular during these difficult times. This is very much behind the planning decisions I have taken recently.

“A summons in this case is the wrong message and Planning accepts this. Today my senior planners met with all staff in our Divisional Planning Offices. This point was stressed to local staff. I am contacting shop owners in Newry to advise them that this case will not be pursued.”

SDLP Assembly Member, Dominic Bradley MLA, slammed the situation as “farcical” and welcomed the personal intervention by the Minister.

Mr Bradley revealed he had met with the senior planners in Marlborough House in Craigavon on Friday morning who intimated that the Planning Service was “not for moving” on its decision.

Bradley continued,

”I pointed out that the Minister had made his views very clear about a similar issue in Belfast and he overruled officials.

“At the conclusion of our meeting, I raised the whole saga with the Minister, Alex Attwood who advised he had just been briefed on it and would be taking personal action. This is an example of where local Ministers work for the needs of local community.

“All our businesses are having a tough time with the economic downturn and this, coupled with the disruption during the Public Realm scheme was impacting on Newry businesses. Planning Service was against a banner encouraging people back into Newry. The decision by Alex Attwood was a good decision for Newry, a good decision for business and common sense has prevailed.”

Sinn Féin MLA Mickey Brady also welcomed Minister Attwood’s intervention in the “ludicrous” situation but called on the Minister to adopt the same approach to all businesses which have previously been summoned for similar reasons.

“These businesses are only trying to promote trade in these difficult financial times,” he said,

“Their initiatives should be supported not punished.”

Following news of the u-turn, the relieved traders issued a statement via their Facebook page expressing their gratitude to the local community for their support:

“A big Thank You to everyone who liked this page or posted comments in support of Newry’s local traders. It would appear that the ludicrous summonses are to be withdrawn and the prosecutions are to be abandoned.

“I’m sure your comments and support have played some part in highlighting the nonsensical thinking in the planning department.”

The businessmen added that they plan to keep the Support Newry Traders page open until March 19th “to ensure the prosecutions are abandoned” and encouraged shoppers to continue to show their support for local traders by shopping in locally owned shops and service providers “rather than the multi nationals who take all the profits out of our city.”