A new planning policy has been proposed by Northern Ireland environment minster Alex Attwood in an effort to protect city and town centres.

The Belfast Metropolitan Area Plan (BMAP) proposes that “planning permissions will not be granted for proposals for retail development where it would be likely to result in an adverse impact on the distinctive role of Belfast City Centre as the leading regional shopping centre”.

The minister also addressed a proposed out-of-town development, Sprucefield Regional Shopping Centre, in his report. He recommended that the centre should only be granted permission if it could guaranteed that it would not adversely impact on existing town centres and that the type of goods sold is restricted to bulky comparison goods.

The minister said the restrictions were part of a strategy to promote Northern Ireland’s capital city as a leading shopping destination. “I am strongly committed to putting Belfast first in these difficult times,” he said. “As evidence indicates a high vacancy rate, I intend to take a precautionary approach to retailing.”

It is hoped that BMAP will be adopted by the Department of Environment by the end of March.

Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association (NIIRTA) chief executive Glyn Roberts said: “We welcome the pro-town centre emphasis of minister Attwood’s statement. Given that we have the highest town centre shop vacancy rate in the UK and that Belfast has one in four shops vacant, it is right that BMAP promotes a town centre first approach to major retail planning applications.”

Shortly before Christmas, the minister also refused planning applications for three major retail developments in Derry in order to protect existing town centres. When announcing his decision, the minister said he intended to “protect the vitality and viability of existing town and city centres, both in Derry and throughout the North”.