Too much authority, too little planning

Taken in isolation the four towers may not have a dramatic impact; but if one, two or three other high-rises are approved in a locality which stands in the line of vision from Valletta to Mdina, the impact could be devastating.

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

By approving five high-rise buildings in a single day – the tallest, 38 storeys in the heart of Malta’s most congested locality – the Planning Authority has underscored the major problems underpinning Malta’s entire approach to urban development: a near total lack of long-term vision and foresight.

Worse, the approval of these projects show how Malta’s planning policies have been tailor-made to facilitate development at the expense of environmental considerations. Mriehel was included in the draft high-rise policy after the conclusion of public consultation; and the project itself was approved before the masterplan for the Mriehel area.

This can only set a dangerous precedent for future projects. Taken in isolation the four towers may not have a dramatic impact; but if one, two or three other high-rises are approved in a locality which stands in the line of vision from Valletta to Mdina, the impact could be devastating.

It is also discomforting that the precedent is being set by a company owned by Gasan and Tumas, two companies with strategic energy interests. On a political level, this reinforces a perception of a self-serving elite: ironically, at a time when Muscat is levelling the same accusation at the Opposition. 

But while the government can get away with it in Mriehel, because there is no residential community, the Sliema approval will have a major impact on residents. Ten months of excavation and four years of construction seem a conservative estimate, given that the much smaller Portomaso tower took over 10 years to build. And at 38 storeys, the aesthetic and infrastructural impacts will be almost double.

The Sliema decision also flies in the face of the PA’s own advice. Doubts had been expressed by the PA chairman on whether the project conformed to existing policies (including a requirement for projects to be surrounded by four streets), leading him to vote against. He also described the project as too excessive for the context.

But in a clear indication of how the government expected the board to vote, PA executive chairman Johann Buttigieg immediately reminded board members that by voting for the project they would be voting for a project which abides by policy. This led to an absurd situation where two leading architects, who happen to be chairman and deputy chairman, voted against; while most of the political appointees, including government representative Joe Sammut, voted in favour.

It was ironic that Environment Resources Authority representative Victor Axiak was ill and could not be present. The present law does not foresee ERA to send a replacement. At the end of the day the project was approved by a narrow majority determined by Sammut’s vote.  So the government can’t hide behind a technical vote. The high-rise policy was pushed by the government, and as a result the government must bear responsibility for the future consequences.

Procedural flaws were also exposed in the process. It is unacceptable that projects take so much time to be decided upon. In this case, a project dating back to 2005 was decided in 2016. This meant that studies like the social impact assessment, conducted in 2007, were outdated. 

Probably the delay had a lot to do with the political landscape, which saw the PN becoming very cautious of taking decisions after 2008. A policy on high-rise, proposed in 2006, was left pending for the next decade; with Labour resurrecting the draft, and surreptitiously adding Mriehel to the list.

At the same time we should not go to the other extreme of rushing the process. The hasty way the Mriehel project was approved does not bode well. Common sense dictated that the project should only be raised in the PA following a masterplan for the Mriehel area, and alongside other applications for high-rises in the area.

It is only in this way that we can avoid a repetition of the haphazard Tigne development: an example of a project carried out without a plan. All such projects should be considered holistically, as the government intends to do at St Julian’s.

Another problem with the approval of high-rises, in the absence of a national masterplan, is that it takes no account of the economic sustainability of having so much residential property and office space on the market, without any study of the demand. That even real estate agents are expressing concern on oversupply speaks volumes about the risk such a gamble entails.

On a political level one can’t but note that while the PN-led local council energetically campaigned against the Sliema development – and Ryan Callus voted against both high-rise projects – PN leader Simon Busuttil failed to capitalise on a political opportunity to voice the concerns of residents in Sliema.

This suggests a paralysis when the Nationalist party faces big business interests. It also gives an impression that the PN is constantly running with the hares and hunting with the hounds.

The biggest concern by far, however, is that by rushing to approve high-rise without giving due consideration to issues such as urban congestion, traffic, infrastructure and economic demand, we have opened the floodgates to massive land speculation in future.

Our descendants may well find this the single hardest thing to forgive the present generation for.