Nice garden. Let’s demolish it, and build a petrol station instead...

No, no, make no mistake. As Boromir would no doubt have put it: 'not with 10,000 legal arguments can you possibly justify a criminal injustice of this magnitude. This is folly…'

One of the first rules of journalism – or any other form of writing, if it comes to it – is to ‘declare your bias’. So here’s mine, coming right up: I live in Ta’ Xbiex, right on the periphery between two other towns, Gzira and Msida… in other words, slap-bang in the middle of one of the most densely populated regions, of the one of the most densely populated countries, in the entire world.

And yet, strangely, it doesn’t always feel that way. This is partly because, for 20-odd years, I have also lived almost literally a stone’s throw from the only public garden in a radius of around two miles.

Even if you were to extend that radius by another two miles… and then another two miles again… Gzira’s ‘Council of Europe Garden’ would still remain the only public garden (or indeed, open space of any kind at all) servicing the entire Northwest Harbour region of Malta.

And hemming in this solitary haven of tranquility – the only place, from Msida to Sliema, where you can still see a couple of trees, or the occasional butterfly fluttering among the bushes (or where, for that matter, children can still play out in the open, in safety) – there is nothing but a choking, claustrophobic sprawl of traffic and tightly-packed urban clutter, with not a single undeveloped square-inch anywhere in sight.

Much as I hate to say this about the hometown I have nonetheless grown to love and care deeply about… looking at it today, I am reminded of Boromir’s classic (and much-lampooned) speech about Mordor at the Council of Elrond:

“One does not simply walk through the Sliema/Gzira/Ta’Xbiex area. The streets are blocked by cranes and delivery-trucks; pavements have been torn up to make way for private lidos, or extensions of private bars and restaurants… there are gaping craters, where there were once elegant townhouses with front-gardens… and the very air you breathe is a foul concoction of exhaust fumes, and dust from endless construction sites…”

But unlike Mordor, there remains at least this tiny corner that is still a pleasure to walk through, or just to sit on a bench under the shade of a tree. Despite the admittedly ghastly name (honestly, though: what were they even thinking?), the ‘Council of Europe Garden’ remains the little chip of prettiness it always was: a sudden explosion of refreshing greenery, and a sorely-needed refuge from the bewildering chaos beyond.

It’s not as though you can no longer hear the steady hum of passing traffic, or the increasingly intolerable drone of pneumatic drills and jack-hammers… but once you step past that hedge, and find yourself inhaling the fragrance of lantana and jasmine, instead of the purulence of garbage bags piled up outside KFC across the road… those sounds tends to be tempered by others: like birdsong, for instance; or the laughter of little children…

And OK, I know what you’re probably thinking: there goes Raphael again, getting all mushy and sentimental as usual...  this time, over a bunch of trees, and maybe a couple of lizards scurrying through the undergrowth…

But I can’t really help it, I’m afraid. For one thing: I do genuinely feel distressed at the thought that even a tiny fraction of this little haven – still less a giant chunk of it – may soon be torn up by bulldozers, to make way for (of all godawful things) another bloody petrol station. Like we don’t have enough of those already…

For another: in this context, the alternative to ‘mushy sentimentality’ is… ANGER. A deep-seated, psychotic and utterly unstoppable primal rage, that grabs me by the intestines, picks me up like a tornado, and hurls my body headlong into the hardest surface it can find.

And I can’t write when I’m angry. In fact, I can’t do very much at all: except maybe break stuff… like my keyboard, for instance; or my knuckles, as they make contact with the nearest wall. (And let’s face it: there aren’t many public open spaces that have successfully been saved from demolition, by people ‘breaking stuff’ in a fit of uncontrollable fury…)

Luckily for the rest of us, however, there are a few others who are fighting to preserve this last remaining corner of our collective sanity and peace of mind. And unlike me, they use arguments that are rational, level-headed, compelling, and – above all – LEGAL.

So without further mushiness or ado: onto the nitty-gritty.

Much to its credit, the Gzira Local Council has attempted to stop this madness by means of a court case: arguing that the Planning Authority’s decision to relocate the Manoel Island petrol station to the adjacent public garden is illegal (let me say that again: ILLEGAL) on a number of counts.

Among them, the following:

> it violates Policy NHRL01 of the Local Plan, which precludes the loss of ‘public open spaces’… in particular, those designated as ‘dark green’ in the accompanying maps (more of which later);

> it breaches the national fuel station policy guidelines, which stipulate a minimum distance of 500 metres between one petrol station and another (there are no fewer than three other petrol stations nearby, all well within that minimum distance);

> it falls foul of SPED (Strategic Plan for the Environment and Development), which “specifies designated areas to be considered as potentially suitable to accommodate fuel stations without creating adverse incompatibilities” (needless to add, ‘public gardens’ do not qualify as ‘suitable’)

> it also violates the Aarhus Convention, which holds – among many other things – that any project which is likely to have an environmental impact, must involve proper consultation with all stakeholders (in this case, the Gzira local council wasn’t even informed about the decision – still less ‘consulted’ – and a petition signed by 4,000 residents was completely ignored).

There were, of course, numerous other arguments – most of them too technical to be included here – but it doesn’t really matter, because the Inferior Court of Appeal (presided over, if you please, by the Chief Justice) systematically threw out all of them, one by one: each time, on the basis of what can only be described as a blatant distortion of the truth.

For instance: with regard to the ‘NHRL01’ objection, the Chief Justice observed that “the site to which the fuel station relocation has been approved does not fall within the confines of the Gzira and Ta’ Xbiex garden. This emerges, in the clearest possible way, when one refers to the GT1 Map of the Local Plans for the North Harbour region…”

Huh? What? Is the Chief Justice colour-blind, by any chance? Reason I ask that, if you do ‘refer to the GT1 Map’ (as I did, immediately after reading that) you will surely realise that the chosen site – all 900+ square metres of it, in fact – falls entirely within the Gzira garden… and the garden itself is very clearly marked out in dark green.

According to the same map’s legend, ‘dark green’ means ‘Public Open Space’… of the kind that is supposedly protected at law, under both the Local Plans and the SPED regulations.

But not only was this incontrovertible fact turned on its head by the ruling… but the same falsehood was used to similarly overturn the SPED objection, too.

Likewise, the Chief Justice sidestepped the objection based on proximity to other petrol stations, by arguing that “no studies for an alternative site were needed in this case due to the fact that the site is ideal for relocation, and this is because it is only 100m away from the current site and therefore its current function to serve the same community will be retained”.

Apart from being a perfect non-sequitur, in the sense that it fails utterly to address the core reasoning of the objection… this argument also overlooks the fact that the ‘community service’ aspect – if we can even accept that as being applicable to a petrol station – is already amply served by no fewer than three other stations, all located less than 500 metres away.

And if there is still any doubt about that, may I personally invite the Chief Justice to accompany me on a walk from the proposed relocation site, to the nearest other petrol station in the vicinity: Paul & Rocco, at the bottom of Testaferrata Street… literally around 200 metres away (as can very easily be attested, by simply counting the paces as we walk).

Besides: what about the ‘community service’ provided by the garden itself… which the same GT1 Map also reveals to be – as I said at the very beginning – the only public open space of its kind, for literally miles around, in a densely populated region inhabited by over 50,000 people?

On what legal basis can the Inferior Court of Appeal possibly justify the loss of such a vitally essential service… essential to the entire community’s sanity, and its ability to lead a normal, decent quality of life - merely to accommodate what is ultimately a private commercial enterprise: from which absolutely no one else will benefit, other than the owner/applicant himself?

Not to mention, of course, the sheer injustice of it all, even from a strictly commercial perspective. How many other private entrepreneurs get to be gifted public land – first by the Planning Authority, then by the law-courts - for their own exclusive personal use and profit? Can we all start taking slices of public gardens, and turn them into our own private petrol stations, private restaurants, private lidos, private apartment blocks, private zoos, private garages, etc.? Or does it only apply to a select few: i.e., the well-connected ones… the ones with ‘friends in high places’?

No, no, make no mistake. As Boromir would no doubt have put it: “not with 10,000 legal arguments can you possibly justify a criminal injustice of this magnitude. This is folly…”

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