Ulster rivals attempt to head off Sainsbury's

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The Independent Online
RETAILERS in Northern Ireland are mobilising to challenge J Sainsbury's planned foray into the province. They intend to call planning enquires to stop or delay the supermarket operator, which last week announced plans to build seven stores in Ulster.

Wellworth, one of the largest grocery chains in the province, is to call for planning inquiries over several of the sites Sainsbury wants to develop. Len O'Hagan, director of operations at its parent company Fitzwilton, said: "All we want is a level playing field. Many of the Sainsbury sites have already been rejected for retail planning permission. Two of them are zoned for non-retail development."

Some are greenbelt sites, where development ought to be impossible, he added. The Department of the Environment's guidelines on planning applications for Northern Ireland emphasise the vitality of town centres should be preserved at all costs. All of Sainsbury's proposed sites are edge-of- town.

Wellworth has 36 stores in the North; 24 are in town centres. Fitzwilton is the quoted vehicle of entrepreneur Tony O'Reilly, who is a shareholder in Newspaper Publishing, publisher of the Independent on Sunday.

The pounds 100m expansion will create 2,000 jobs, many part-time. The stores, ranging between 35,000sq ft and 45,000sq ft, will be similar in size to Sainsbury's medium-sized in-town stores elsewhere in the UK.

Sainsbury expects the stores to open by October 1996, but Wellworth says a planning inquiry - even if Sainsbury wins - could delay that by up to two years.

Neil Currie, a retail analyst with SG Warburg, said the advent of peace may well encourage a relaxation of the rules.

Sainsbury upset Belfast opinion when it revealed the family-owned Supermac store it acquired in a pounds 32m deal would close with the loss of 300 jobs.