Paceville: The cart before the high-rise horse

The Labour government seems to be treating Malta’s scarcest resource as a ‘salotto buono’

When presenting a master plan for the Paceville area last month, Planning Parliamentary Secretary Deborah Schembri said: “We must look at the bigger picture and adopt a holistic approach where quality of life and social well-being are at par with economic progress. Malta is in the right place and in time to make a shift change in the way things are done.”

At face value, one can certainly agree with both those observations. But it is highly questionable whether the current administration is indeed ‘looking at the bigger picture’ and especially whether ‘quality of life and social well-being’ really are being put ‘at par with economic progress’.

A cursory glance at the Paceville master plan, even outside the broader national context, suggests otherwise. That Malta’s main entertainment district is in urgent need of a strategic rethink is beyond question. But the plan itself seems to have little to do with a sorely-needed strategic vision for Paceville, and much to do with creating massive opportunities for mass speculation aimed at converting Malta’s coastline into a goldmine.

Of particular concern are two of the plan’s declared objectives. The first is to earmark parts of Paceville for high-rise development, and the second is to enlarge the area through land reclamation.

Both these considerations should in theory be subject to a national master plan for high-rise and land-reclamation respectively. The Planning Authority is already in the process of formulating such a national master plan for high-rise buildings. Why, then, are we considering allocating land for that purpose, before this master plan is even finalised? Isn’t this a classic case of putting the cart before the horse?

The question assumes greater relevance when one considers how the Paceville proposal was drawn up. The process clearly involved taking in submissions from businesses, which have not been made public. Naturally, one can understand that the PA would take such submissions into consideration once the public consultation process has been opened. But not before. Otherwise, one might conclude that the entire exercise was motivated by the wish-list of certain businessmen who have interests in Paceville, and whose land would exponentially increase in value as a result of this master plan.

It is perhaps ironic that the PA eventually decided to extend the public consultation process, after certain Paceville operators complained that they needed more time to make their own submissions. It seems that some developers were given priority consideration over others. If this is what Deborah Schembri meant by a ‘change in the way things are done’, it bears mentioning that it may well be a change for the worse.

These inherent problems in approach become more acute when the Paceville master plan is viewed alongside other planning decisions for other parts of the island. In Marsascala, a planning application has been submitted for the demolition of the existing Jerma Palace Hotel, land reclamation works, and the construction of a mixed-use development consisting of three high-rise buildings. The project also envisages the construction of a breakwater, the re-routing of the public road and extension of landscaped area around the St Thomas’ Tower.

Already we are on familiar territory: businesses busy churning out proposals for high-rise and land reclamation, at a time when a national policy has yet to be formulated.

Likewise, in both cases the primary consideration appears to be the monetisation of the coastline for speculative purposes. This is not only unwise, given that Malta’s coastline is by definition limited, but also legally questionable. Recently, the ‘Public Domain Law’ was unanimously approved in the House, guaranteeing the public full access to the foreshore. Both the Paceville and Marsascala proposals appear to be in direct conflict with this policy.

As regards land reclamation: one cannot dismiss the idea out of hand, because land has successfully been reclaimed in several areas: Msida, the Freeport, the Sliema Ferries, etc. In all such cases, one can talk of an urgent social or economic need for such projects. What is the justification in the recent proposals?

If the aim is to create new land, out of our public resources, for the sole benefit of developers... one must also ask if there is to be any payback. Why should national assets be exploited merely to maximise profits for private enterprises? Why should so much taxpayer money be diverted into schemes to benefit commercial interests?

The Labour government seems to be treating Malta’s scarcest resource – its land (and now, even its sea) as a ‘salotto buono’: it is catering for the whims of Malta’s most ambitious businessmen, who are being gifted public land for their own private investments.

A final question concerns the consultation exercise. In the case of Paceville, this has already been vitiated... given that private business submissions have not been made public. This is also quite typical of the Muscat administration. It always launches public consultations on issues such as gay blood donation, or consults the social partners on raising the minimum wage; but on the environment, it is all about ‘shock and awe’ changes.

This virulent pro-business drive is clearly short-sighted. Quality of life cannot be bought with money.

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