Lessons from Gzira

Conrad Borg Manché is among that rare breed of mayor, who prioritise their residents’ wellbeing over and above partisan interests. People like these are the sorely needed critical voices... in a country where communities are often left alone to battle the excesses of big business

A significant decision by the Appeals Court last week has left no doubt as to the need for a root-and-branch overhaul of the Lands Authority. 

On Wednesday, Mr Justice Lawrence Mintoff confirmed an earlier decision by the Administrative Tribunal, that had blocked a Lands Authority decision to reclaim part of a public garden in Gżira, for the relocation of a fuel station. 

In his judgment, Mintoff did not mince his words: “The least one expects from any public authority is to respect the principle of natural justice… and abide by a higher standard of transparency and correctness.” 

The judge also observed that, had the tribunal not stopped the authority from going ahead with its actions, the land in question would have been released “without any reaction, simply on the basis of a written request of a public authority”. 

More significantly, Mintoff underscored the public authority’s obligation to administer public land in “the interest of the common good”, describing its actions as a case of maladministration. 

The crux of the matter was the authority’s hamfisted attitude, in reclaiming some 900sq.m of the public garden, without even consulting the Gzira local council, which had been administering the same site for 22 years. 

The judge insisted that the local council is a representative organ that has to answer to residents for any decision it objects to or approves. In this case, the decision taken by the public authority had a direct impact on the quality of life of residents. 

Mintoff went on to say that, under the circumstances, prior consultation with the Gzira council should have been the bare minimum one would have expected. 

Faced with such an indictment, the people at the Lands Authority should hang their head in shame. This is an authority that has had its fair share of controversies, over the years. It lacks transparency and is still beholden to a lot of paper-based processes that make access to information difficult to achieve. 

It is also an important authority, because it administers lands that belong to the general public; and thus should never act as if it were just an ordinary property agency.  

Public land comes at a premium, in this small country; and it should be administered in the best way possible, to the benefit of the public good. 

Ideally, the authority should be subject to an independent oversight mechanism, and – like what happens at the Planning Authority - its processes and decisions should be easily accessible online. The Ombudsman’s office should also have a Lands Commissioner: just like it already has a Planning Commissioner, to specifically deal with cases of maladministration in that sector. 

As such, the Lands Authority’s complete disregard of the local council, in the Gżira case, was completely unacceptable. To make matters worse, however, the ultimate beneficiary of this decision was not an overriding public interest; but a petrol station owner. 

This raises another issue, to which the government is also obliged to find a solution. The petrol station owners, in this case, have long been promised an alternative site by the authorities, since the land where the existing fuel pump is located is required to widen the road. Their expectation is therefore quite legitimate. 

But relocating the station to a bigger footprint some 100m up the same road, and encroaching on the Council of Europe Garden, is clearly not the right solution. For starters, it beggars belief as to why the station owners should be given a bigger footprint than what they currently have, in the first place. 

And while an alternative site has to be found; it should not be taken away from the public part of a garden, that has been enjoyed for generations. 

If anything, the garden should be reorganised and expanded, to turn some of the hard surfaces earmarked for the petrol station into soft surfaces. This would fit in with government’s policy of prioritising green open spaces in urban areas. 

Meanwhile, Gżira Mayor Conrad Borg Manché is more than justified to celebrate this victory. He has persevered and fought tooth and nail to save the garden from being cannibalised; and he did so in the face of adversity, even from within his own party.  (Suffice to say that the lawyer fronting the Lands Authority’s appeal was none other than PL President, Ramona Attard.) 

Borg Manché is, in fact, among that rare breed of mayor, who prioritise their residents’ wellbeing over and above partisan interests. People like these are the sorely needed critical voices, that serve to keep the discussion on the environment and people’s wellbeing alive in a country where communities are often left alone to battle the excesses of big business.  

The Labour Party should therefore view him as an asset, and not as a foe. Losing people like Borg Manché – as well as former Xagħra Mayor Christian Zammit, who resigned last week - only impoverishes the party further.  

Much worse, however: it also fuels the perception that the Labour government is actively servicing the interests of only a select few, to the detriment of the wider public’s well-being.  

And as Borg Manché himself put it, some weeks ago: that is the very opposite of Socialism.