[WATCH] Updated | Central Link project approved as environment authority chairperson remains uncharacteristically silent

The Planning Authority Board has approved the Central Link project in Attard with only three votes against from PN representative Marthese Portelli, NGO representative Annick Bonello and Attard local council member Giorgio Schembri

48,466sq.m of good quality agricultural land and 549 trees stand to perish due to the demands of the Central Link Project
48,466sq.m of good quality agricultural land and 549 trees stand to perish due to the demands of the Central Link Project
Farmer's impassioned plea to stop destruction of agricultural land

Updated at 6.05pm

The Planning Authority has approved the Central Link project in Attard that will see the connecting road between the roundabout at the foot of Saqqajja Hill and the Mrieħel bypass be transformed into a four-lane thoroughfare.

The project went through with only three votes against. Environment and Resources Authority chairperson Victor Axiak remained uncharacteristically silent throughout the meeting and eventually voted in favour.

A farmer's plea

Earlier, board members heard farmer John Camilleri make an impassioned plea against the project, which will ruin agricultural land.

Two new lanes in the direction to Rabat will be constructed in the outskirts of Attard on agricultural land, while southbound traffic will be shifted to the road where the Bonds showroom and Wood & Coal restaurant are situated in a bid to minimise traffic congestion.

"Why are we creating further lanes when the road is already wide as it is? The traffic jams there began when the Ta' Qali traffic lights were installed," Camilleri, told the board, adding that agricultural land for farmers was livelihood.

An Environment Impact Assessment carried out last year had warned that the project will result in the permanent loss of 48,466sq.m of good quality agricultural land and the uprooting of 549 trees, 272 of which are protected by law.

The blue line represents the extent of the Central Link project that connects the Saqqajja Hill roundabout (left) to the Mrieħel bypass (right). The road passes through Attard
The blue line represents the extent of the Central Link project that connects the Saqqajja Hill roundabout (left) to the Mrieħel bypass (right). The road passes through Attard

Camilleri described the project's road-widening plans as the massacre of agriculture and of residents who will be "enveloped by pollution." In a heartfelt and vigorous appeal, he said that the farmland here consisted of irrigated fields, greenhouses, fruit trees, natural cisterns, and farmers themselves who worked and lived on the land.

"All this will be completely destroyed for something that can be fixed with re-design and proper traffic management," the farmer continued. "Moreover, besides the land that agriculture stands to lose forever, further land will be temporarily taken up by machines for buffer zones. This can last for two, three years. This is what the farmer stands to lose. And how will he get it back? Time passes you by."

He added that as a farmer gets old, unable to work on his fields, any promise of new land as compensation will not sound appealing. This, in turn, would not encourage young farmers.

"All in all, it is all of Malta that stands to lose," he concluded.

Other farmers asked what will happen to them and why nobody seemed to give them any importance.

Lionel Cassola, a resident in Thomas Chetcuti street said that whenever he will open his bedroom window he will find himself facing the road. Former PA Chairman Austin Walker who lives in the area lamented the lack of consultation with residents.

"We have taken note of which trees which will be removed and replaced. But what about the people living there?" he asked.

Astrid Vella insisted that some of the trees which will be eliminated date back more than a century. "These can in no way be compared to new saplings planted. These form part of the national heritage, some even depicted in paintings dating back to last century," she said.

Cyclists insist that lanes are dangerous

Independent Zebbug councillor Steve Zammit Lupi described Malta as a junky hooked on cars. He brought to the table objections made by the Bicycle Advocacy Group insisting that it did not ensure safety for cyclists highlighting various dangerous spots.

"If we are willing to destroy 50,000 sq.m of agricultural land for such a project how on Earth can we not find land for a bicycle network?" he asked.

Frederick Azzopardi replied that 12,000 sq.m of land are dedicated to cycle lanes. Cyclists rebutted that as proposed the cycle lanes are "dangerous and useless."

Graffiti questions rent-a-crowd tactics

Christine Cassar from Graffitti asked whether persons employed with Transport Minister Ian Borg were attending the meeting in their capacity as employees or as members of the public. She was referring to a small crowd which applauded any comments made in favour of the project.

Only a couple of people attending the meeting spoke in favor of the project. A Dingli resident lamented how congestion in Attard impacted public transport in his locality. Two Labour councillors referred to current congestion levels impacting Attard residents trying to move out of the locality in rush hours. But Attard mayor Stefan Cordina reiterated the council’s position against the project.

Government representative Clayton Bartolo defended the project, insisting that it has a lesser land take-up than what was originally indicated in the 2006 local plan.

Former PN leader Simon Busuttil was amongst those who spoke against the project insisting that it will have a deleterious impact on quality of life, especially on those 1,200 people who will end up "living in a central strip." PN deputy leader David Agius said that such a project should only take place after all traffic reduction and calming measures are taken. He appealed the board to send the project back to the drawing board.

AD chairperson Carmel Cacopardo insisted that the project is short term and any benefits would be offset by the increase of cars in the long term. He referred to Transport Malta’s masterplan which if implemented would decrease congestion by 50 per cent in the absence of infrastructural works.  

Emission reductions based on worse case scenario of traffic increase

Frederick Azzopardi on behalf of Infrastructure Malta warned that if the project does not take place dust levels will increase threefold.  But it later emerged that these statistics are based on a worse case scenario of annual increases in traffic rates.

Improvements in air quality are foreseen in the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) as a result of the elimination of traffic jams and gridlocks that may otherwise ensue without the project “under the current traffic projections”.  

Opposition board member Marthese Portelli expressed her concern that the figures indicating reductions in emissions are based on the status quo and on a projected increase in traffic. This means that this excludes a reduction in traffic. Transport Malta’s Frederick Azzopardi insisted that such studies have to be "based on a worse case scenario" of an annual increase of traffic.

The EIA had also referred to various scientific studies which explain that whilst road-widening schemes in urban areas are often proposed as a solution to traffic congestion, there is “clear evidence that new or expanded roads rapidly fill with displaced or induced traffic, offsetting any short-term gains in eased traffic flows”.

Professor Christian Scerri, a cancer specialist attending the meeting warned that the project makes it impossible to turn the heart of Attard into a pedestrian area. He also warned that all studies show that more roads result in more pollution. In fact the EIA qualifies the decrease in pollution on the premise that traffic will remain as it is today.

He also pointed out that 1,200 residents enclosed by the new road will be further exposed to pollution. Scerri proposed an elevated flyover between Zebbug and Mriehel as an alternative, a large part of which would pass over a quarry and an existing road. He appealed to the authorities to go back to the drawing board.

Historical buildings to be relocated from their context

A number of structures in the vicinity of the chapel of St Paul Shipwrecked are proposed to be demolished to allow for the creation of a link between Triq Oliver Agius and Triq Ferdinand Inglott, something that is considered by Infrastructure Malta as “imperative for the performance and relevance of the project”.

While noting that that the works will not impact on the historical chapel of St Paul Shipwrecked itself, the Superintendence for Cultural Heritage had called for the re-routing of the proposed network to avoid the demolition of these vernacular buildings near the chapel. The case officer recommended separate applications for the dismantling or retention of these structures.

The council’s architect asked what would happen if these permits are refused?

Frederick Azzopardi replied that the intention is to rebuild parts of these vernacular buildings elsewhere. He did not reveal where.

Social Impact Assessment shows majority approval of project

Frederick Azzopardi presented the results of a Social Impact Statement based on a national representative sample showing 82 per cent agreeing with the Central Link Project and 84 per cent agreeing that it would reduce emissions.

Sociologist Michael Briguglio questioned the value of a one-off questionnaire arguing that this cannot replace dialogue with residents who are impacted. He also asked whether the study was peer reviewed.  The study had not been previously published on the PA website.