The road to highrise…

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

That ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions’ is a popular truism. Johann Buttigieg, the Planning Authority’s executive chairman, has provided a text-book example by citing ‘good intentions’ to justify his efforts to ensure a full turn-out to last week’s Board meeting, which approved the controversial City Centre project in Pembroke by 10 votes to four.

This week it was revealed that one board member – Jacqueline Gili, who represents the government – had been flown in on a private jet from a holiday in Sicily before the vote was taken: despite the fact that there was no necessity for all members to be present.

The Board’s chairman Vince Cassar described the move as ‘unprecedented’. A spokesperson for Prime Minister Joseph Muscat was quoted saying that the government did not agree with the PA’s decision; while Opposition leader Adrian Delia has been quoted as calling for an independent inquiry into the case.

On its part, the PA defended itself, saying that back in August 2016, when a similar high-rise planning application was approved, “much criticism had been levelled at a Board member who for medical reasons [Victor Axiaq, representing the Environment and Resources Authority] was not able to be present”.

“The Authority felt that the City Centre project was a high-profile case and carried the same magnitude and importance as that of other high-rise projects,” the PA said.

But in separate comments to the media, Buttigieg said his decision was taken “with good intentions”; and that he would “be an idiot” to repeat the mistake in future.

Already, it can be seen that the PA is contradicting itself on this latest blunder. Clearly, the excuses offered by the authority through its official media channels, and the off-the-cuff remarks by its executive chairman, do not add up to a consistent picture. Either it was a mistake to fly in that Board member, or it wasn’t. Realistically, there can be no middle road.

Whether it really was a case of good intentions gone bad, however, remains debatable. This was not the only indication of a ‘fait accompli’ in connection with this particular project. There was also the scandalous price-tag attached to public land – significantly lambasted by none other than former Labour leader Alfred Sant – as well as the fact that the board overlooked over 4,000 objections, mostly based on planning infringements and contradictions between the project and Malta’s own planning policies and rules.

Besides, comparisons with the 2016 Townsquare project decision do not really hold water. On that occasion, the criticism did not arise from the absence of any Board member at the meeting (nearly all Board meetings which approve or reject permits usually have at least one Board member absent, without any complaints). On the contrary, it was because the absentee happened to be the only representative of the ERA: which is in turn the only official entity present on the Board – not counting NGOs’ representatives – that has a responsibility towards safeguarding the environment.

In this case, however, the Board member who was flown in represented a government that was blatantly foursquare behind this project. As such, the urgency (and cost) with which this private jet was dispatched smacked heavily of a measure to ensure a favourable vote.

Knowing full well that many government appointees on the PA Board often miss out on meetings, there must have been a will to ensure a full presence on what was, arguably, an important project. Naturally, it was expected that government members would vote in favour of the project, but without such drastic action, this might not have been a clear enough vote to counter the onslaught of well over 4,000 objections from the public.

A close vote would have put the approval in doubt. A clear majority was needed. This, more than ‘good intentions’, appears to have been the driving force behind the decision.

And this, too, is what triggered the criticism. It is the PA’s naked, undisguised determination to ensure the predicted outcome, which (in this case more than most) runs directly counter to massive public resistance, that has irked and irritated large swathes of the general public.

And there are other causes of concern. Various reports have since emerged on alleged conflicts of interest: including Matthew Pace, of MFSP Financial – also co-owner of the Swieqi branch of the RE/MAX Alliance, one of several agencies which are finding investors and residents for the same project. More recently, a denial by Labour MP Clayton Bartolo of what appears to be a close relationship between his family’s business and the db group.

Flying over a single Board member can therefore be seen to be only one part of an entire network of connections and coincidences, all designed to ensure that the PA delivers the ‘right’ decision, when push comes to shove. 

Taken together, this unfortunately suggests that the PA board has become too institutionally compromised to be entrusted with its sensitive task. There are too many conflicts inside the board to inspire public trust. It is simply a tool to ‘legitimise’ the government’s pact with business and construction: leaving no official entity to safeguard legitimate public concerns against corporate greed.