A credibility test for Muscat

Initially, the choice of the Zonqor site for the development of a new university campus was presented as a provisional decision, with the government claiming it would be willing to assess alternative sites.

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

The decision to forge ahead with a large-scale development project outside the development zone in Marsaskala represents a major credibility test for the Muscat administration. 

Joseph Muscat’s entire approach to this issue has in fact already been characterised by deceit. Initially, the choice of the Zonqor site for the development of a new university campus was presented as a provisional decision, with the government claiming it would be willing to assess alternative sites.

However, it later transpired that MEPA’s Chief Executive Officer, Johann Buttigieg, had already commissioned a preliminary assessment which deemed the ODZ site as “acceptable” for the development of the proposed American University campus.

The desktop study purported to identify a site which conformed to clear specifications by the government. According to MEPA, the specifications were that the site had to be in the south of the island, and at least half owned by the government. Protected areas were to be excluded, and the site had to be well-serviced by existing infrastructure.

Only one other site ‘conformed’ to these specifications – Fort St Leonard and the adjacent fields – but the study concluded that the impact on the fort would be excessive, and that this site was not well serviced by the necessary infrastructure.

MEPA has also revealed that a full site selection exercise will be carried out as part of the environmental impact assessment for the preferred site. But given the specifics of the selection brief, it is clear that no other alternative site could possibly match the desired criteria. 

Effectively, then, we are dealing with a ‘fait accompli’… which suggests that any additional studies will only serve to justify a decision that has already been taken. This is a far cry from the expectations raised by Labour in its successful 2013 election campaign.

The government has also been deceitful in using the prospect of a ‘natural park’ as a sop to placate environmental NGOs. The two unrelated developments were announced on the same day: sending out a loud message that the idea of a ‘natural park’ came about in order to counterbalance more development in an ODZ area. This is nothing but an attempt to ‘greenwash’ the controversial project.  

It also transpires that the area identified for the development of the university campus had already been earmarked for a natural park approved in the 2006 local plan for the south of Malta. Naturally, one can criticise the previous administration for failing to implement this project; but this does not exonerate the present government from the commitments of what was ultimately a legally binding local plan. 

The original local plan included both a map and a policy which earmarked L-Ghassa tal-Munxar in Marsaskala and the coastal stretch between Il-Ponta taz-Zonqor (Marsaskala) and Blata l-Bajda (Xghajra), as a natural park. MEPA’s Planning Directorate normally recommends a refusal for any development in breach of policies enshrined in the approved local plan.

Yet not only has MEPA pre-emptively approved a development which runs counter to this plan… but the authority even selected an ODZ area for development, against all its own policy criteria.

Doubts also linger regarding the validity of the project itself. There is some merit to the argument that a university development, which aims to bring 4,000 students to Malta, may generate spin-offs to benefit the Marsaskala economy. The government is already suggesting that the development will increase interest among potential developers for the Jerma Palace Hotel, which remains derelict and abandoned. 

But there is another side to this argument: namely, that the university project may simply boost the value of another development, without creating any additional benefits. 

Re-opening the Jerma is largely a commendable objective to pursue, even if the original development took a part of the coastline from the public. But there is a danger that a new Portomaso-style development may create a new self-contained town which would absorb all the resulting spin-offs from the university. 

This was in fact the reason that Muscat’s predecessor as party leader, Alfred Sant, had criticised the Xaghra l-Hamra golf course proposal as a project that would only benefit the hotel owners in Ghajn Tuffieha.

Moreover, there is a limit to any trickle-down effect beyond some limited gains by the commercial community: gains which could still be achieved if a more creative approach is adopted for this project… for example, if the new university campus were to be split among different locations. 

It is also extremely debatable whether enough consideration has been given to traffic and other infrastructural impacts of an injection of 4,000 new inhabitants to the area. 

All things told, one expected more from the government on this issue. A serious approach would entail asking MEPA to identify a site (or sites) within the development zone, or on already disturbed areas in a transparent process. 

As it turns out, however, the government seems only interested in hiving off a piece of public land (which can be leased at a cheap price) for speculative development. This in turn sends out the message that the planning goalposts can be changed every time a new investment opportunity crops up.

Clearly, this falls far short of the level of seriousness Joseph Muscat promised before the last election.

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