Putting the tunnel before the vision

Once again, ‘geological and technical studies’ that were supposed to have been concluded over a year ago, have never actually been finalized

If you’ve read any of my recent articles, you will already know that I am not exactly the biggest fan of the proposed yacht marina project in Marsaskala.

And you’ll have an idea of roughly why, too: i.e., because I consider it to be just another flagrant land-grab exercise – only this time, grabbing more water than land – which would deprive residents of a much-needed (and much-loved) open space, for the exclusive financial benefit of the ‘lucky consortium’ that will tender for, build and ultimately operate the resulting commercial enterprise.

It is, in fact, a classic case of what I like to term the ‘Dooh Nibor’ syndrome… because it does the clean reverse of what Nottingham’s most enduring popular folk-hero used to do, all those centuries ago.

It ‘steals from the poor, to give to the rich’…

But having said all this: I must admit I found myself sympathising – even if only very briefly, and only up to a point – with prospective bidders who expressed their misgivings and uncertainties at a recent ‘clarification meeting’ with Transport Malta.

According to a report by my colleague James Debono, bidders were “concerned by public opposition to the Marsaskala marina plans”; and also that “even if chosen, they must still prepare an environmental impact assessment that might not have a positive income…”

Now: admittedly, both ‘concerns’ can be seen to be rather self-centred, at the end of the day. The former translates loosely as ‘we are concerned that public opposition may actually derail the project, after we’ve already invested in it’; and the latter is just a variation on the same theme.

Nonetheless: they still raise a couple of questions that are entirely valid… and not just from the perspective of those particular bidders, either.

For as Debono goes on to note in that article: “The confusion among bidders and the general public stems from the fact that Transport Malta has opted to choose a bidder for the marina, before submitting the conclusion of a site-selection exercise or formal planning application, rather than vice-versa. This means that bidders will be chosen before the formal public consultation process has even started, and before an EIA is even commenced let alone concluded…”

Hmmm. Hardly surprising those prospective bidders would be so ‘confused’, is it now? For what is that, if not just another way of saying: “The lucky lottery winner will be chosen before the lottery itself has even been organised; and long before the winning ticket has even been printed (let alone, drawn from a hat)”?

But tell you what: let’s stop looking at it only from the perspective of the people who stand to benefit the most from this project. Let’s look at it from everyone else’s point of view instead.

What does all this really mean, anyway? Apart, of course, from yet another aspect of the same old ‘Dooh Nibor’ syndrome: only this time, subverting not just the entire concept of social justice… but also all the standard, long-established procedures governing public procurement in this country (which have always required the winner to be chosen AFTER an adjudication process has been carried out… and certainly not before.)

Well, one of the things it means is that we have simply no way at all of ascertaining why – or even how - the lucky winner is even going to be chosen in the first place. Think about it for a second: on what basis, exactly, is Transport Malta – or the Department of Public Contracts, for that matter – going to even adjudicate any applications it may receive in future… when nothing whatsoever is actually known about the selection criteria?

Take the EIA issue, for instance. In reply to those bidders’ questions, Transport Malta said simply that it: “expected that proponents come up with a design and model that will fulfil environmental requirements and planning requirements. It is up to the proponent to come up with a project that would fulfil those requirements.’

Erm… hate to point this out, but you do need to know what those ‘environmental and planning requirements’ actually are, before you can possibly be expected to ‘fulfil’ them, you know...

And that works both ways. It’s not just the bidders who need that information from beforehand: Transport Malta itself would also have to be aware of all the relevant environmental – and archaeological; and geological; and maritime; and social etc. – issues involved… before it can decide on a proposal that somehow ‘satisfies’ all these unknown criteria.

So… on what basis will the lucky winner be chosen? On his ability to accurately predict what an as-yet unconducted Environment Impact Assessment may or may not reveal? On his capacity to pre-empt any geological impediments, that may or may not be brought to light by future studies and surveys… which – if they ever take place at all – will only be concluded long after the entire tendering process has already been decided?

And much more pertinently: how will Transport Malta justify its choice of winner… when (inevitably) other failed bidders go on to appeal against the decision? I mean… it can’t exactly be on the traditional ‘Best Price/Quality Ratio’, can it? For one thing, we have no idea what the financial costs of the final project will even look like (that’s another thing that will have to be based on the results of all those future studies and surveys)…

And besides: how can anyone gauge the ‘quality’ of a yacht marina design… when we don’t even know what sort of conditions this marina will have to contend with, during – or even after – its construction phase?

So what sort of argument will Transport Malta even use, to defend what is obviously going to be a controversial choice? I can see it all now: ‘We chose the winning proposal because it was best-suited to address all the technical problems that we didn’t even know even existed… because it fully conformed to a price/quality model that hadn’t actually been established yet… and also because it allayed all the general public’s concerns: even though those concerns hadn’t been aired publicly yet, either (because, you see, the consultation phase hadn’t even started, when we chose the lucky winner…)’

Yes, indeed: I can totally see that argument holding up in court…

Then again, however: there is no need to wait for a future appeal against an equally future (and obviously vitiated) tendering process, to get an idea of where all this is headed.

For while everything concerning the Marsaskala marina project still has to be framed in the future tense… the same tendency to ‘put the cart before the horse’ (or, if you prefer, the ‘yacht before the pontoon’) is very much a present-day affair. Just this morning, in fact, it was announced that a ‘single bidder’ had been ‘short-listed’ for the Gozo tunnel project, out of a total of four applications… and…

… well, already it seems we are dealing with a whole new definition of the word ‘list’: because, in the five or so decades I’ve been on this planet… I have never, ever encountered a ‘list’ (short or tall) that contained only one, single solitary entry…

But I’ll overlook that for now, because there will soon be a second phase of the tendering process, and more applications may be submitted in future.

All the same, however: Infrastructure Malta still somehow took a decision – not the final decision, perhaps; but a decision nonetheless – to single out only one of four prospective bidders… without, to the best of my knowledge, ever specifying what sort of criteria those bids had to meet in order to get chosen.

Only this time, the same back-to-front approach was taken for a project that:

a) will cost unimaginably more than a yacht marina;

b) entails far, far more in the way of environmental/geological studies that need to be undertaken, before it can even be declared logistically practical (still less, financially feasible), and;

c) is likely to permanently alter the entire character – not to mention environmental fate - of the still-relatively unspoilt island of Gozo.

And… well, I need hardly add that no reason or justification was forthcoming, regarding exactly why – or, again, even how – that particular consortium ended up being the ‘lucky winner’. All we were told is that “The chosen bidder is a consortium of five companies, including the UK’s Equitix, Japanese company Itochu, Turkish companies Yapi Merkezi and Makyol, and French company Egis.”

And… um…  that’s it, really. We were never told what ‘environmental/geological requirements’ this consortium had to somehow ‘fulfil’ - still less, why this particular consortium was deemed better-placed than all others, to deliver on what are ultimately unspecified criteria.

Because it seems that, once again, the tendering process was issued before any EIA was carried out;

Once again, ‘geological and technical studies’ that were supposed to have been concluded over a year ago, have never actually been finalized;

And once again, the EIA itself – and all other studies relevant to the feasibility/practicability of this project - will have to be conducted by the winning consortium itself… but only AFTER the tender itself has already been adjudicated.

I mean, honestly. At this rate, we may as well just scrap the entire tendering process altogether – and with it, all pretence of ‘fairness’ and ‘justice’ in public procurement - and simply dish out contracts and concessions, in the same way as politicians already dish out hampers (and apples, and oranges, etc.) at election time.

It would still be a blatant travesty, naturally. But at least, this way it would be more… um… ‘honest’…