‘We could not keep on waffling’, Victor Axiak says on ‘painful’ Central Link decision

Uncharacteristically silent throughout the PA meeting that voted in favour of the Central Link road-widening project, ERA chair Victor Axiak says he had nothing to add to the ERA’s reasoning on the project

ERA chairman Prof. Victor Axiak
ERA chairman Prof. Victor Axiak

The chairman of the Environment and Resources Authority Victor Axiak has justified a controversial vote in favour of the Central Link road-widening project on what he called was the “national interest”.

But he also claimed that nothing that was said in Thursday’s meeting of the Planning Authority board had convinced him to depart from the “reasoning” behind ERA ‘s final report – in which “it did not object to the project”.

Yet in its report, the ERA fell short of giving its consent to the project, insisting that the conditions presented for inclusion in the permit were being done “without prejudice” to its concerns.

Still, on Thursday Prof. Axiak not only voted in favour of the Central Link project –  which will result in the unprecedented loss of 50,000 sq.m of agricultural land and 549 trees, 272 of which are protected – but was uncharacteristically silent throughout the meeting.

“Whenever I speak it is the end of the world and if I don’t, it is also the end of the world,” Axiak commented when questioned about his uncharacteristic silence, with his only intervention being to raise his hand in favour of the project.

Yet Axiak never shied away from expressing his opinions during all board meetings followed by MaltaToday in the past.

Even on Mriehel’s Quad Towers high-rise, where he was indisposed, he intervened by sending a written memo by proxy. On the DB Group’s City Centre project, he infuriated objectors by repeatedly referring to the project’s environmental impact assessment by way of addressing their concerns.

This time Axiak told MaltaToday he had “nothing to add” because nothing of what was said during the meeting had changed anything from ERA’s report, calling most interventions against the project as “emotional”.

“I did not hear anything which convinced me to vote against. So I voted in favour… Since I heard nothing to convince me otherwise I felt an obligation to respect what ERA had already said in its reports.”

Axiak insisted that he attended the board meeting with an open mind, and that he had not been predetermined on how to vote on the project. “As I do in all such cases, while taking in full consideration ERA’s opinion, I also take into consideration all arguments put forward during the public PA board meeting, both from the developers’ side as well as objectors.

“In this case, after hearing all arguments for and against… I felt I had nothing to add to what ERA had expressed in its feedback to the PA.”

Axiak cited his own recent vote against the Sliema Townsquare project as proof of his independence, pointing out that even then the ERA did not object to the project but that he still voted against.

Yet in its report, the ERA fell short of giving its consent to the Central Link project, insisting that the conditions presented for inclusion in the permit were being done “without prejudice” to its concerns.

This contrasts with ERA’s stance on other projects like the revised Townsquare, where it ultimately declared that “it does not object to the proposal from an environmental point of view”.

In the case of Central Link, ERA’s final report neither included a recommendation to approve, nor a recommendation to reject the project.

The report indeed described the loss of ecosystems due to uprooting of 549 trees, the disassembling of rubble walls and shifting of soils during construction, as well as the widening of the road during operation as a “significant major residual impact”.

While noting that the “proposal is intended to alleviate traffic and congestion and is consequently expected to improve air quality” and that a cost-benefit analysis showed that a lack of interventions in the area would result in a gridlock by 2028, it concluded that the “residual adverse impacts remain of significant concern”.

ERA also reiterated its “opinion that the traffic abatement issue should also be addressed at a strategic level through sustainable measures that effectively reduce dependence on car transport”.

But when asked about this lack of a clear endorsement, Axiak replied that he was following the “reasoning of the ERA board” – which also includes within it representatives from NGOs and the Opposition. “All the conclusions, recommendations and permit conditions included in the ERA report had been unanimously approved by the ERA Board, which includes representatives from eNGOs and the Opposition.”

When asked how he could vote for a project, which would effectively destroy an agricultural expanse the size of seven football grounds, Axiak described the decision as a “painful one, recognizing that “many of his friends” were making arguments against the project.

But he also justified the project on the basis of national interest, insisting that the project has been in the pipeline for various years and a decision had to be taken, in view of the risk of a gridlock. “This is a one-off decision… it will not be repeated… It is different from petrol stations approved through a policy which would allows such development to be repeated.”

When asked whether he was concerned that statistics showing improvements on air quality were based on a worst-case scenario of an annual increase in the number of cars, when the country should be decreasing car use, Axiak replied that the main issue is the risk of gridlock. “We could not wait for the construction of an underground… I felt that we had to take a decision. We could not keep on waffling on this issue.”

Axiak categorically denied having been instructed to vote in favour of the project. “I would immediately resign if anyone tells me how to vote.”

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