Rabat promenade approved as Planning Authority ignores ERA

ERA chairman Victor Axiak insists that any planning gain from Rabat promenade is outweighed by the ecological loss in the sensitive area

The Planning Authority’s board has approved the widening of a carriageway and the construction of a promenade on the ramparts of Wied tal-Ġnien Ħira valley in Rabat, despite the objections of the Environment and Resources Authority and its representative Victor Axiak.

Apart from Axiak, only NGO representative Annick Bonello and economist Gilmour Camilleri voted against. Strong objections were raised in the meeting by leading archaeologists, botanists and ecologists.

The Rabat project had attracted 1,156 objections mainly due to the ecological impact of the project. The latest plans indicate that 1,900sq.m of land will be covered by a cantilevered structure between Nigret and the Roman Villa.

Axiak immediately made it clear that he would be voting against the project while agreeing with the need to reinforce the structural stability of the road. “There is no reason to justify this promenade in a sensitive ecological area... What we are going to lose cannot be measured in square metres, because what we will be losing has enormous qualitative value... I understand that people should enjoy these views, but what is the use of enjoying the view when we are losing what they should be enjoying.” 

Axiak drew a comparison between the planning gain of the Central Link and the Rabat project, sayig the latter would result in an ecological loss which outweighs any benefits.

Patricia Camilleri from the Archaeological Society warned that the project would eliminate a historical landscape of significant archaeological importance, and called for an archaeological investigation before any works. 

Tara Cassar from Din l-Art Helwa said her organisation was not against upgrading the road but insisted that archaeological investigations should be held before any permit rather than after a permit is issued. “This project is with the buffer zone of the Roman Domus. Therefore it is obvious that any discussion on the project should be held after this investigation.”

This point was reiterated by archaeologist Dr Reuben Grima, who insisted that the board should not take a decision in the dark but only after the archaeological evaluation is carried out, especially considering the high archaeological importance of the area. He also warned of a risk of conflict of interest if the archaeological investigation is carried out as part of the same contract for the construction of the new promenade. “We should not put the cart before the horse.”

Board member Gilmour Camilleri agreed with Grima, insisting that all studies should be conducted before a decision on the major project is approved. “I will be voting against the project not because I am against upgrading the road but because studies were not finalised before the project was brought to the board’s consideration.”

Camilleri is one of the new board members appointed by new Minister Aaron Farrugia. He also lamented the absence of a social impact assessment on the project.

But PA executive chairman Martin Saliba disagreed, insisting that the permit was required to commence the works, and that even archaeological investigations required the removal of parts of the road. Camilleri insisted on the finalisation of studies, including a construction management plan before any decision is taken.

An archaeological investigation will still be carried out under strict supervision of the Superintendence for Cultural Heritage and plans will be changed if archaeological discoveries are found, something described as very likely. The archaeological monitoring will be independent of the construction works. Geological studies showing that the current road has structural problems with the road falling into the valley.

Cassar said the compensation of 500 trees at the Ta’ Qali national park for the negative environmental impact of the project was not satisfactory, saying the park is a government project taking place irrespectively of the road widening project.

Robert Louis Fenech from Moviment Graffitti insisted on a more limited, minimal intervention to upgrade the road without sacrificing agricultural and ecological land.

Resident Nadia Cassar expressed concern that the promenade, rather than encouraging a modal shift, would end up attracting more visitors. She also expressed concern on the structural instability of the area expressing a fear that works in the area could aggravate problems. “As soon as works start I will leave my house... I am scared that my house on which I spent so the last 12 years investing in, will fall down.”

Cassar also showed cracks in the present road to demonstrate her point. While welcoming the reinforcement of the road, she expressed concern that excavating the road could result in even more problems. Architect Robert Fenech clarified that the works will not involve excavating the present road while noting that the road is meant to improve the stability of the present road.

Nadia Cassar, complimented by board chairman Vince Cassar for bringing up the concerns of residents, lamented the lack of a social impact assessment. “Nobody talked to the residents about this project. We just learned about it from the PA notice. I do not want to live next to a promenade like the Sliema one.”

She also invited those responsible for the project to visit her home to better understand her concerns. The project architect replied that discussions had been carried out with the Rabat council, who was represented in the meeting by mayor Sandro Craus.

Mayor Sandro Craus, who favours the project, confirmed that buildings in this road suffer from structural problems because of the state of the present road. But he used this point to confirm the need for the proposed project, which would reinforce road stability. But Craus also called on the ministry to ensure maximum safety during the works. He blamed the structural problems on the lack of stormwater facilities, which should be one of the priorities of the project.

Craus – who serves as an OPM official – actually asked those opposing the project “to shoulder responsibility for any deaths” should the present collapse. Board member Annick Bonello took offence at this comment, insisting that everyone agreed with reinforcing the existing road, and that objections related to cultural heritage and ecological considerations mainly created by the extended promenade.

Wayne Portelli, a farmer who would lose a part of his land to the new promenade, supported the upgrading of the road but objected to the creation of the promenade which would overlook farmers working the land, describing this as “an invasion of privacy”. “Being looked upon while tilling the land is not on... farmers are not some sort of attraction for people sitting on a bench.”

He lamented the lack of any consultation with the farmers who own the privately-owned land.

The undeveloped land to be taken up by the proposal contains a number of important species like the Grass-leaved Pepperwort. The project will also uproot 16 trees, including the largest fig trees in the Maltese islands. Botanist Timothy Tabone, who spent the last 27 years studying the area, made a passionate appeal to the board comparing the loss of Malta’s largest fig tree to the loss of St John Cathedral. “No compensation can ever be enough for the loss of this particular tree and the various plants which grow there.”

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