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‘Vote Gonzi, Get Caqnu’ no more?
The 2006 environmental protests captured the perceived collusion between Polidano and the PN government. Does MEPA’s overdue enforcement action against Polidano signal an epochal rapture in the PN-Polidano power nexus?
17 September 2012, 12:00am
On Thursday morning, MEPA's enforcement team carried out a direct action operation on two large sites adjacent to Polidano's Poligas compound, blocking the entrance to two illegal depots littered with scrap, vehicles and heavy machinery. The illegal dumping had been going on since at least 2004.
MEPA has now asked the police to press charges for building illegally in the same area.
Considering that MEPA had already issued three enforcement notices on the same site, the decision to take direct action was in itself long overdue and a far cry from an immediate and proactive clampdown against one of Malta's top planning outlaws.
In this sense, a run of the mill action against a blatant abuse has assumed a highly symbolic value of rapture between the PN and the construction magnate.
Closing an eye on Solemar and Poligas
To see how the planning regime favoured this particular construction magnate one has to simply turn back the clock to the late 1990s.
Polidano first applied for an extension of the pre-existing Solermar hotel in Marfa back in 1997, but despite a clear negative recommendation by the Planning Directorate, the extension was approved.
In 1998, Polidano's application for an expansion was refused in 2000. Despite the refusal, the expansion was still carried out illegally. In 2001, MEPA was asked to sanction the fait accompli with a €460,000 fine, a case causing wide embarrassment within MEPA itself, and creating a strong rift between the board and planning experts.
Now turn back the clock to 2006. The year starts with the Prime Minister inaugurating the new Poligas Plant in Hal Farrug on New Year's Day.
MEPA had approved the plant, which produces the highly flammable acetylene gas, in 2005 in the absence of an Environmental Impact Assessment despite being 200 metres away from a fireworks factory. While an EIA had been conducted on the relocation of the Multigas plant in Kirkop, no such assessment was ever carried out on the Poligas plant because it did not surpass the 3,000-square metre threshold and did not involve the storage of combustible gases.
In the same year, Polidano also regularised his Hal Farrug complex despite numerous enforcement orders due the sprawl of unauthorised development, according to the EIA owing to "the 1990s' construction boom when contractors were compelled to grow at relatively fast rates in order to be in a position to compete for tenders for large scale projects".
The 1990s were a veritable golden age for Polidano Group, which saw a tenfold increase in turnover from 1989 to 2003, with its turnover increasing from Lm4 million (€10 million) for the three-year period between 1989 and 1991 to just under Lm40 million (€98 million) between 2001 and 2003.
A Lidl appetite for ODZs
Also in 2005, Polidano applied on outside development zones (ODZ) to construct Lidl chain supermarkets in Luqa, Safi and Zebbug.
The Zebbug supermarket was ultimately rejected but caused scandal after MEPA deputy chairperson Catherine Galea presented the application in her capacity as a private architect. The Luqa and Safi applications failed to pass the test of the MEPA auditor's scrutiny due to flight-path safety restrictions because they were located within 250 metres of runway 24.
The permit was approved despite a previous refusal for a car-hire firm to build a garage in the same public safety zone. "While in the case of the previous applicant the objections presented by the Civil Aviation Department led to its rejection, the same objections were dismissed simply because other developments exist in the area," auditor Falzon said.
When the MEPA auditor's report that found the permit for the Safi supermarket was irregular ended up being published by Alternattiva Demokratika during the 2008 elections, the entire MEPA development control commission that approved the permit resigned en masse.
In Labour's good books?
Thursday's clampdown on just one of the Polidano Group's many illegalities gives rise to various interpretations, perhaps a sign that MEPA reform has rendered this authority more autonomous of government to the extent that it now can tackle sacred cows.
It could also suggest that Charles Polidano has fallen from political grace, even though MEPA's action comes quite late in the day to enforce the law, after three notices it served in 2004, 2006, and 2009.
It is highly probable that the clampdown required some form of political clearing. The action itself inevitably sends a message that MEPA is no longer tough with the weak.
But the PN could also be banking on growing apprehension among voters that Labour is warming up to the construction lobby, so instead seeks to capitalise on the public outcry of 2005 when thousands of mostly 'pale blue' voters attended marches organised by Astrid Vella's Flimkien Ghal Ambjent Ahjar.
Once a frequent target of the Labour media during Alfred Sant's tenure, Polidano may have lost his bête noire status under Joseph Muscat. The new leader even chose to have his 2008 inauguration party at Polidano's Montekristo wine estate. And in March 2010, Labour MP and planning spokesperson Roderick Galdes was the only MEPA board member to vote in favour of Polidano's 40-apartment residential block and underground car park in place of a historical townhouse and garden in Balzan's village core proposed by Charles Polidano.
With Muscat's overtures to the construction lobby, slamming MEPA's red tape and exhuming plans for land reclamation already deemed "unfeasible" by consultants Scott Wilson, Polidano may yet find some solace inside new Labour.
James Debono is MaltaToday's chief reporter on environment, planning and land use issues, ...