Chinese invoke secrecy on Pembroke embassy plans

PA allows legal ban on publication of Pembroke embassy plans due to security concerns on request of Chinese government

Site of the 20,000sq.m land for the Chinese embassy in Pembroke
Site of the 20,000sq.m land for the Chinese embassy in Pembroke

A Planning Authority case officer is recommending the approval of a new Chinese embassy over 19,000sq.m of Pembroke woodland, with a final decision expected to be taken by the PA board on 29 October.

But the public is being denied the right to access key documents such as the case officer’s report, photomontages and plans, as the Chinese government has invoked a legal clause that prevents the publication of documents which can impinge on security.

MaltaToday’s request for these documents were denied by the Planning Authority, whose spokesperson said the Chinese Government had requested that given the nature of the building “its security needs to be safeguarded”.

The PA said it is restricting access in accordance with Section 33 of the Development Planning Act, which exempts banks, airports and buildings related to national security from publishing such plans and documents.

In contrast, detailed plans and the case officer’s report on amendments to plans for the United States embassy approved by the PA in 2013 are still available to the public.

But the case officer’s report for the original US embassy application, which dates back to 2006 and therefore predating the present information system, is not available online.

The only plans of the proposed Chinese embassy’s elevations available to the public date back to November 2019, now superseded by other plans.

Only statutory bodies like the Superintendence for Cultural Heritage have seen the plans.

Embassy plans

The land along Suffolk street was earmarked for the construction of an embassy in changes made to the local plan in 2012 under a PN administration.

The embassy will also include 20 residential apartments for the families of staff working in the embassy, included in two five-storey blocks. The embassy itself will also include dormitories for eight persons working in logistics.

But the Superintendence for Cultural Heritage has warned that the development “is evidently one of very high intensity and visibility”, which will have an “inevitable impact on the spatial and visual context of the surrounding scheduled buildings”.

The scheduled buildings include Australia Hall, which is just 36m away, a block of barracks located 15m away, and a cluster of military buildings including an officers’ mess located 96m away.

Although the proposed structure is intended as an embassy, the Superintendence still called for a reduction in heights and intensity of the development to minimise visual interference with the vistas of the scheduled structures.

But the embassy architects are insisting that height reduction will mean an increase of the building’s footprint, which has been restricted to 18% of the entire site. “If the building heights had to be lowered, for the required functions of the Embassy buildings, the building footprint would need to be increased... substantially reducing the proposed soft landscaping on the site, currently proposed at circa 39%.”

Architect Ivan A. Cachia said the design concept takes full consideration of the sloping terrain of the site. Neither the final plans of the development, nor the photomontages assessed by the SCH, are not available on the PA’s information system.

Protected woodland

According to the embassy’s architect, the consular and office buildings will be built on the highest point of the site near Suffolk Road, having a height of two and three floors respectively. Residential buildings rising to 5 floors are proposed at the lower part of the site, and will not exceed the height of the office buildings.

The site is a protected afforested area of pines and Acacia species, recognised under the Trees and Woodlands Protection Regulations.

The local plan approved in 2006 had allocated the site for an embassy but also three-storey high maisonettes and flats on the condition that mature trees found in the area are safeguarded.

The process to locate the Chinese embassy in Pembroke had started in January 2012 when amendments to the local plan were issued for public consultation. In 2014, parliament approved a resolution through which the Chinese government was set to pay €7.88 million for the 11,000sq.m site.

Australia Hall next in line

The site is near Australia Hall, a historic property passed on to the Labour Party by the same Labour administration in the 1970s as compensation for land the party owned in Marsa expropriated for the Malta Shipbuilding complex. Upon re-election in 2013, the Labour administration stopped a Lands Authority court action started under the previous Nationalist administration, to take back Australia Hall in the hands of the State. The Labour Party proceeded to sell the building to furniture manufacturers Fino, which last year also presented development plans for the area next to Australia hall.

The company is proposing four-storey “terraced development” in the area around the protected building. But they could also increase building heights over and above statutory limits for sites over 4,000sq.m and surrounded by existing streets. If half the site is retained as an open space, this could result in an eight-storey development.