In praise of ‘Occupy Manoel Island’

Lurking beneath the surface is a deep-rooted and widespread sense of discontent concerning our country’s strategic use of land

20 September 2016, 5:29pm
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
The activism in Manoel Island this week was about more than the island itself. Lurking beneath the surface is a deep-rooted and widespread sense of discontent concerning our country’s strategic use of land – Malta’s scarcest resource. 

Manoel Island is perhaps the most iconic example of everything that is ill-advised about Malta’s land use policies. It is arguably the only natural green lung in a densely populated and urbanised area, in which almost every square inch has been developed. From the outset it was debatable whether such a valuable oasis of green should have been offered up for further speculative development in the first place.

Nonetheless, back in 2000 the MIDI consortium was granted both Tigné Point and Manoel Island on a 99-year-empytheusis, on condition that they regenerate the two former military bases. However, while a yacht marina was developed and Fort Manoel restored, MIDI focused most of its energy into developing Tigné into a high-end residential and commercial centre.

Their original plans for Manoel Island were to develop it into a marina village, complete with low-rise homes, gardens, a yacht marina, shoreline walkways, a boutique hotel, a waterfront promenade, and cultural, leisure and sports facilities. The project would also involve the restoration of Fort Manoel and the old Lazzaretto hospital, and development was to be limited to 30% of the island, towards its south-west coast.

The concession stipulates a deadline of 2023 for the completed project, but so far only a small fraction of the total has been delivered. Even the little that has been completed can be questioned: photos published by the activists show the area in a dilapidated, derelict state.

There are however other legitimate reasons to doubt the ability of the MIDI consortium to complete a project which has barely even started after 16 years. Until very recently, MIDI was reportedly seeking a strategic partner, arguing that the total cost of the project would exceed €500 million.

That would make this project one of the costliest Malta has ever seen. A further indication of serious feasibility issues was reports that a buyer was asked for €145 million when reportedly attempting to buy the concession. One is given an indication of the amount of money the consortium is trying to recoup, when the real investments have not yet been made.

In a sense, however, this means that Manoel island itself remains relatively unspoilt, though in urgent need of attention. It is therefore inevitable that surrounding residents, starved of open spaces for the recreation of families, would seek to reclaim a garden on their own doorstep for themselves.

This raises several important questions. In forcing open the gates to reclaim the area, both the activists of Kamp Emergenza Ambjent and the Gzira mayor were asserting a right that is theirs by law. In correspondence to Gzira mayor Conrad Borg Manché, MIDI retorted that it is under no obligation at law to provide access to the foreshore over its private property.

But this is debatable on two counts: one, Manoel Island is not ‘private property’. MIDI holds a 99-year lease, after which time it will revert back to government. The project to which it is committed was technically to serve a public, social function. Parts of the proposed ‘marina village’ were all along intended to be open to everyone… so MIDI’s failure to develop the land has doubly deprived Gzira residents of what is rightfully theirs. Not only has the promised public space never materialised, but access to the foreshore – which was never included in the contract – has also been gated off.

Secondly, even if the property was private, there are still legal obligations involved. Ownership of a piece of land does not empower the owners to disregard the law while on that property. To suggest otherwise is to turn back the clock several hundred years, to a time when landowners did indeed enjoy semi-sovereign fiefdoms, and sometimes behaved like little kingdoms.

It is precisely this attitude that has incensed great parts of public opinion on this issue. The KEA activists may be few in number, but the general response to their cause was overwhelmingly sympathetic. Indeed it is hard to find anything defensible in MIDI’s reaction to this initiative. Erecting sings saying ‘Private property, keep out’ is no way to respond to the legitimate exercise of civic rights.

This adds another dimension to the issue. In supporting KEA’s protest, Gzira residents (and large parts of Maltese society as a whole) are also venting frustration at an insatiable greed for public space to develop into private enclaves… leaving the general people with fewer and fewer places of leisure and relaxation.

Given the size of the Maltese island, this should be of paramount concern. Yet successive policy-makers seem oblivious to the growing public demand for more space, and as we have recently seen, the authorities are only too eager for the land-gobbling trend to continue. 

It would be wise to pay heed to the widespread groundswell discontent underpinning the ‘Occupy Manoel Island’ movement. There is a limit to how long a people will continue to accept being sidelined in favour of commercial interests.