A tragedy for the environment

The Portomaso decision is not only scandalous, but indicative of the political mindset.

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

When the controversial Hilton development was greenlit in 1995, its approval came with an important proviso: that no further extensions are granted in the future.

This was an olive branch offered to the residents and environmentalists who vehemently objected to the Hilton development.

In 2012, the Malta Environment and Planning Authority board - following the use of former MEPA chairman Austin Walker's casting vote - upheld this principle, insisting that this precluded MEPA from approving 46 new villas in an area previously designated as an ecological zone.

In fact, following the approval of the Portomaso permit in 1995, a notice was put on the site which is now earmarked for development stating that: 'As part of the Hilton Site Development Project, the site within this wall is being sealed off for the protection of important ecological species during project construction and will be opened to the public... any inconvenience is regretted.' Curiously, in the following years, hidden from public eye, the protected wedgewood grass mysteriously disappeared from the area which was not scheduled.

The local plan approved by former PN minister George Pullicino in 2006 was changed to accommodate development on the site where the villas are presently proposed.

This created a conflict between the permit condition issued in 1995 and the local plan. The MEPA board gave supremacy to the planning condition while the Appeals board appointed by the labour government gave supremacy to the local plan approved in 2006 by a PN government. But the new Tribunal also over ruled one

that the site includes a number of illegalities which have not been sanctioned. MEPA rules clearly state that no development can be allowed until all irregularities on site have been regularised or removed. This on its own should have led the Appeals Board to abide with the MEPA decision taken in 2012.

The Portomaso saga clearly exposes the shifting goal posts of Maltese politics with the both PN and PL initially favouring the Portomaso development which was approved in 1995 with the important condition that no further development will be allowed. The pro-development bias of PN persisted over the next years with the local plan approved in 2006 effectively designating the area for development. But following the outrage of civil society following the local plan approval in 2006 the PN started to change tack especially after Mario de Marco took over the MEPA portfolio. 

Subsequently, it was the PL which outmanoeuvred the PN by taking a pro-development stance. This coincided with civil society taking the back seat. But now that Labour is becoming even more pro-development, civil society is making its voice heard again, thus creating a problem for Labour.

The fact that this decision was taken part time board which includes a Labour Party candidate (Simon Micallef Stafrace) and a private architect, appointed as Freeport chairman by the same Labour government (Robert Sarsero) is in itself suspicious.

The board was appointed to take over part of the caseload from the full time board which remains in place. In total, 740 pending cases have been transferred from the jurisdiction of MEPA's full-time appeals tribunal appointed in 2011 to a new part-time tribunal recently appointed by the new Labour government. 

Even if the decision includes strong legal arguments based on the inclusion of the site in the local plans issued in 2006, the way a decision taken in 2012 after months of public debate by a newly appointed board in a meeting which takes away far from the arena of public debate raises legitimate suspicions.

It is not only scandalous, but indicative of the political mindset. It is a tragedy for this environment in this country.