White Rocks, or white elephant?

While one welcomes the fact that a call for expressions of interest has been issued this time round, one cannot but express concern about the fact that the project will simply create a greater glut of property.

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

Few public projects are so universally associated with failure and disappointment as the derelict White Rocks holiday complex, in the limits of Bahar ic-Caghaq.

Plans to redevelop this prime location go back to the early 1990s, yet none has ever got off the ground. The latest of such attempts to rehabilitate this area – currently a derelict blot in an otherwise stunning location – was a proposal by the previous government to develop a sports complex, coupled with 300 real estate units.

The agreement with British investors (who were chosen in the absence of any tender) fell through for reasons which were never revealed. In fact the entire proposal, including the method of selection of bidder, had shown a near total disdain for the norms of transparency.

From this perspective it is understandable that the present government would want to deliver where all previous administrations have so far failed. But that in itself is no justification for repeating some of the same mistakes made by previous governments: not least, reneging on a previous decision, taken in 1999, to preclude real estate development as part of the overall brief.

That was a wise decision, especially when taking into consideration that a large swathe of residential property remains vacant to this day. Yet the government has once again opted for a project entirely based on tourism and real estate development. As a result, the country will no longer gain any direct benefit for the community in the form of sports facilities, but only more residential units.

While one welcomes the fact that a call for expressions of interest has been issued this time round, one cannot but express concern about the fact that the project will simply create a greater glut of property, which may also place additional pressure on the perception of a property price bubble about to burst. 

Moreover there are also environmental issues at stake. Any development must respect the Habitats Directive of the EU, and the existing built-up area at White Rocks is adjacent to an EU-Commission approved Special Area of Conservation (SAC). European law mandates that the only development permissible in SACs is that which is necessary for the management of the site itself.

The Habitats Directive further restricts activities on sites adjacent to SACs, in the sense that these are to serve as a buffer zone and should not cause indirect damage to the SACs. If the above parameters are adhered to, it is not at all clear which residential facilities can be developed except on the already developed site.  T

his would leave unanswered questions as to where the 300 projected residential units, clearly intended as payment for services rendered by the developing consortium, are to be built.

Furthermore, any call for expressions of interest today is still obliged to follow existing planning policies regulating development of this site. In fact a Development Brief for the White Rocks site already exists, having been issued by the then Planning Authority in 1995 when an “upmarket tourism project” was proposed. The development parameters drawn up then are still of extreme relevance to today’s discussion.

The site identified in the 1995 brief consisted of 36.9 hectares. Strangely, however, the site identified by the present government is now even larger (45 hectares)… with the extension not covered by any existing planning approval.

The 1995 brief also subdivided the area into three zones: Zone 1, having an area of 38% of the total, consists of the existing holiday complex and its facilities. Zone 2 (39%) consists of a mixed garigue and rocky coastline, including the marine environment and archaeological resources. Zone 3 (23%) consists of agricultural land. Only Zone 1 was to be released for development.

The brief identified one exception: an underground structure in Zone 2 which was to be rehabilitated… in respect of which no extension of its footprint was to be considered.

A second document of relevance to the White Rocks site is the North Harbour Local Plan, approved in August 2006. This document makes no reference to development at White Rocks: the area is in fact designated as a “green wedge”. The implications are clear: no development should take place on this site at all. This indicates that both the sports/real estate proposal of the Gonzi administration and the present real estate proposal are in breach of local plans.

Given the extent of the technical expertise and sound planning that went into both these documents, it is simply absurd to ignore an approved PA development brief and also the North Harbour Plan, in favour of a new development for which no brief has been issued (still less one that gives due weight to all the above considerations. Even from a strictly legal point of view, the government is obliged to limit any new development to the zone identified in the original plans.

In view of the commercial sensitivity of the decision, it is perhaps understandable that the government would green light some form of development: but the resulting project should follow one simple rule: All development should be limited to the existing built-up area. Anything more would overstep approved planning policies, and open the floodgates to uncontrolled and environmentally unsound development in future.

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