Chinese get stingy on €478,000 fee as Pembroke embassy gets green light

Chinese government requests €478,000 planning gain to be slashed to €275,000 after getting PA green light for six-floor embassy in breach of local plan’s height limits

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

The Planning Authority has approved a new Chinese embassy on 19,500sq.m of woodland in Pembroke.

The NGOs’ representative on the PA board, Annick Bonello, and Pembroke local council executive secretary Kevin Borg, voted against in view of the fact that the embassy will rise above height limitations for the area.

PA chairman Vince Cassar implored the applicant to revise plans, to take in consideration the council’s concerns. But this request was turned down by the applicant, who insisted on a final vote.

The board turned down a request by the Chinese government to reduce the planning gain of €478,000, compensating for the environmental impact of their embassy built on a woodland area.

Initially, the Chinese government objected to paying the full sum, claiming exemption by the Vienna Convention for diplomatic missions on taxes and other dues. But during the meeting, the embassy’s architect insisted on paying the fee only when calculated on the gross floor area of built space of 11,000sq.m, rather than the entire 19,500sq.m.

The planning gain was calculated on the PA’s standard formula applicable in all other cases.

The PA’s executive chairperson Martin Saliba did propose a compromise to reduce the planning gain to €350,000 after 5,000sq.m of soft landscaping was removed from the equation; but the board finally confirmed the original planning gain.

The Pembroke council objected to Saliba’s proposal, saying the 5,000sq.m landscaping included tennis courts. Victor Axiak expressed surprise that China was seeking to reduce the planning gain in view of the historical collaboration between the two nations. “I would have expected them to offer more, not less,” Axiak said. “We expect foreign governments to pay what is also expected by any Maltese citizen.”

The embassy will rise to six floors in breach of local plan rules setting heights at three floors at Triq Suffolk, an area earmarked for the development of an embassy in a zoning application in 2012. The embassy will have 20 residential apartments and a formal garden of 5,000sq.m.

Two of the embassy blocks will be five storeys over the ground floor, despite the 16m height limitation, as compensation for the reduction of the developed footprint from 9,500sq.m in 2012 to 3,700sq.m. Saliba described the deviation from height limits as a “concession” in view of the reduction in footprint.

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 PA’s own planning directive insisted that the overall massing of the building was acceptable in view of “dense landscaping” between the embassy and the historical structures. 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.

The Superintendence wanted a reduction in heights and intensity of the development to minimise visual interference with the vistas of the scheduled structures. Pembroke council executive secretary Kevin Borg, who spoke in Maltese, called on the Chinese embassy to revise their plans again, retain protected pine trees and endemic flora and fauna, lower building heights and introduce green walls.

He also warned that the embassy would block views from the sea towards Triq Suffolk and set a precedent for other developments in Pembroke. “We would have expected greater environmental sensitivity from a government embassy… There is no embassy in Malta surrounded by two-storey high blank walls… We are ready to host an embassy in our locality but we cannot vote in favour of the embassy because they showed no willingness to address our concerns.”

ERA chairperson Victor Axiak said with respect to the protection of trees and endemic species like hedgehogs that the ERA had its hand tied by the embassy zoning approved in 2012, but he promised that ERA will ensure that conditions are abided to.

Other objections came from Graffitti, who pointed out the deviations from approved plans including building heights and trees in the area; Nationalist MP David Thake, who questioned the need of super-embassy of such dimensions; and Labour candidate Mark Causon, speaking on behalf of 6,000 objectors, who objected to the loss of open spaces and the six-storey height.

The Chinese government invoked security reasons for not publicising case officer reports, photomontages and plans before the meeting, with a detailed presentation by the case officer only shown during today’s meeting. Section 33 of the Development Planning Act exempts banks, airports and buildings related to national security from publishing such plans and documents.

MaltaToday’s request for these documents had been 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”. Plans can now be made accessible to the public under supervision of Chinese embassy staff.