Dismantle the PA

The DB project in Pembroke confirms the growing detachment of the Planning Authority from public sentiment and any notion of democratic planning

On occasions like last Thursday’s approval of the DB ‘monstrosity’ in Pembroke – so reviled by thousands of objectors – the Planning Authority board increasingly looks like a detached military junta which hands out sentences without due consideration to the daily life of those condemned to live in the shadow of mega developments.

Approved by the slimmest of margins, the DB project – which includes 179 apartments located in two 18 storey towers and a massive 12 storey hotel – confirms the growing detachment of the Planning Authority from public sentiment and any notion of democratic planning.

Here we had an application opposed by three local councils representing 30,000 residents, and which in its various stages attracted an unprecedented 17,000 objections. As Graffitti activist Andre Callus warned, the approval simply confirms the PA’s uselessness: “The people have spoken. Everyone is against it except the DB group. If the PA ignores all these objections, the PA should close down.”

And indeed, the Planning Authority should be shut down and replaced with a more democratic and accountable authority, where local communities have the strongest say.

And it is also time to reintroduce bad neighbourliness as a reason for turning down developments, as was the case with the 1992 structure plan.

It was disappointing to see a brainchild of the Muscat era, which carries all the hallmarks of Konrad Mizzi’s devious flirtation with big business interests, being approved under the aegis of Robert Abela and planning Minister Aaron Farrugia, who had once promised ‘a new start’.

It is clear that the addiction to real estate projects is so ingrained, that the government is unwilling to pull the plug. In reality there is no hope to save what is left of our Malta, if those in power remain enslaved to an economic model which depends on the multiplier effect of construction and the sale of apartments to rich foreigners, in this case, subsidized by the cheap availability of public land dished out by a compliant government.

There is no longer any semblance of ‘balance’ (if indeed there ever was). In a situation of environmental deficit, the only way to redress the situation is to skew the balance in favour of communities and the environment.

Expecting people to sacrifice their daily views and life for the sake of economic growth is not on. Economic growth should serve the people, not vice versa.

This, however, was a self-evident case of a high-rise development being imposed on a residential community. The fact that the project is out of scale with its surroundings, namely St George’s Bay and Pembroke, is something which none of those voting for the project dared dispute. In fact, with the exception of Martin Camilleri who chaired the meeting, the three other board members – namely Saviour Debono Grech, Duncan Mifsud and Sean Mangion – did not even open their mouths during the meeting.

Moreover, the argument that the project abides by policy is itself disputable. For the FAR policy itself includes a number of clauses which preclude high rise development from residential areas. Pembroke itself was not even identified as one of the localities where high rise development can be allowed.

But in this case, there was also a very logical reason why it made no sense for the PA to approve the DB project at this stage. The project depends on the creation of a tunnel linking Pembroke and Paceville: and while there is no controversy on the development of a tunnel under Regional Road to serve Paceville, it makes very little sense to create a 1.4km tunnel passing under a Natura 2000 site, which would simply serve developments in Saint George’s Bay, the largest of which is the DB project.

If anything, the PA should have first approved the tunnel and then considered the DB project. Now we have ended in a situation where we have put the cart before the horse, with the approval of the DB project increasing pressure to approve a tunnel which will further inflict pain on Pembroke residents.

Sure enough the project has been downscaled, thanks to the perseverance of activists who – out of their own money – paid the legal expenses for a court case which revoked the original project.

But it is hardly a consolation that the original plan has now been replaced by a project which remains completely disproportional with the surrounding area and which brings Paceville closer to the homes of people.

Faced with a choice between people and profit, the PA has clearly chosen profits.

Surely this is not always the case, as there are occasions when good sense has prevailed; but it is clear that in cases involving the sale of public land to big developers, the PA’s hands are tied.

As Pembroke resident and writer Adrian Grima said: a bully has been allowed to enter resident’s homes; and in this case the PA made a clear choice, in favour of bullies and against residents.

In a nutshell, we have ended up living in an absurd situation where infrastructural projects are being dictated by private projects, with no regard to any other consideration whatsoever. This has to stop.