A green flashpoint

This latest example of an apparent ‘fait accomplit’ raises questions as to the weight public outcry is given in Malta’s planning process

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

It was inevitable that the db Group’s City Centre project in St George’s Bay would end up in a quagmire of controversy.

The outcome of Thursday’s Planning Authority vote to approve the permit has left many residents with a bitter aftertaste; and beyond that, a widespread sensation of déjà-vu.

As the meeting unfolded, and reasoned arguments against the project outnumbered voices in favour by an overwhelming majority, the board members’ own contributions all pointed towards a decision that had been taken beforehand. Objections were for the most part simply ignored out of hand. When PD spokesman Godfrey Farrugia listed out 19 infractions or irregularities in the planning process, the board members almost literally looked the other way.

Above all there was a distinct feeling that genuine and valid concerns raised by almost a whole community were being overlooked; or worse, side-lined for the business interests of someone who will be making a killing on public land granted to him in very dubious circumstances

To start with, the manner and price at which the ITS land was granted to Silvio Debono’s company remains a matter of controversy.

The short timeframe for the tendering process, and the dubious land valuation exercise, had already created a sense that public land was being hived off for private interests on the cheap. In the end the db Group would only dish out a cash consideration of €15 million, with the boisterous €60 million price tag quoted by the Prime Minister to be reached only when tenants in the lucrative apartments eventually redeem their ground rent.

Nonetheless, Debono took a risk in applying for this project. Given the wave of hostility the PA approval has unleashed, one must pause to consider that businessmen are also expected to take risks. While the reactions are understandable, they are in a sense misdirected. We look to national institutions such as the Planning Authority to safeguard the environment and the interests of communities... not to developers like Silvio Debono, who do not have any commitments to those causes.

Having said this, there is also an entirely unnecessary hostility displayed by such business interests, when civil society attempts to throw spanners into the works. That the db Group provided free transport to its own employees to attend the meeting, is suggestive of an attempt to drown out all opposition.

Developers must be aware that their projects have a serious impact on the quality of life in the surrounding areas. A little sensitivity towards this fact would not be too much to ask of Malta’s development lobby... especially considering the longer-term impact of their projects.

Moreover, in this case, Silvio Debono’s risk-taking was not limited to proposing a massive project, and issuing a bond as part of the financing package. He also started selling on-plan apartments inside the 38-storey tower, before it was approved.

The gamble paid off on Thursday when the PA board approved the project without batting as much as an eyelid at the impact it will have on the neighbouring Pembroke community. One can hardly blame the general public for drawing its own conclusions, and deciding for themselves how much of a ‘risk’ it really was.

The result is a new wave of disillusionment gripping Maltese society, with which other communities around Malta can certainly identify. Pembroke residents are not alone in feeling totally dejected at being completely ignored. The Marsaskala community can sympathise, remembering a time, not too long ago, when a recycling plant was planted in the locality after a vitiated alternative site selection process.

This latest example of an apparent ‘fait accomplit’ raises questions as to the weight public outcry is given in Malta’s planning process. It really feels like residents’ concerns are all-too easily dismissed, in a planning process that is after all supposed to be public in nature

But worse still, controversy is stoked by policy ambiguity. If architects, planners, or even lawyers can liberally interpret planning policies to suit their paymaster’s needs, it is inevitable that mayhem will ensue.

It boggles the mind how, on Thursday, the architect who was responsible for drawing up Malta’s high-rise policy argued at the meeting that the db project was not in line with the policy... and yet, board members did not even bother to probe further.

All this gives the impression that this policy ambiguity is intentional, aimed at allowing the big guns to get away with bending the rules.

Lastly, the db project was not just a private initiative but one aided and abetted by government through the sale of public land. Thursday’s approval of the City Centre project may very well be a green flash point for the Labour government.

Meanwhile there may be another reason for both the scant regard given to residents’ concerns, and the policy inconsistencies themselves. Anger is palpable in Pembroke, but Government knows that this communal resentment is unlikely to translate into an electoral backlash under the current political circumstances.

This naturally remains to be seen, but government would be wise to remember that history, too, will judge this phase of Malta’s political development. And history may be a lot less kind to Joseph Muscat’s administration than the electorate.