We can’t afford to lose any more | Conrad Borg Manché

Lurking behind the recent Manoel Island controversy is an inconvenient truth: Gzira is too congested to afford losing more precious open space to speculative development. Mayor Conrad Borg Manché makes the case for the island’s repossession

Gzira mayor Conrad Borg Manche
Gzira mayor Conrad Borg Manche

Like C3PO on the desert sands of Tatooine, one is inclined to ask whether certain localities in Malta were ‘born to suffer’. It seems to be the lot of certain towns and villages to put up with more hustle and bustle than others. And few places can claim to have endured more than Gzira: a small but densely populated urban strip huddled along the foreshore of inner Marsamxett harbour.

Traditionally, Gzira has always attracted more traffic than elsewhere – largely because it lies sandwiched between two other important traffic nodes: Sliema, and Msida. But in recent years the place has grown substantially. Already home to a large government housing estate, the upward urban expansion that previously claimed Sliema has made inroads throughout Gzira’s narrow streets: with townhouses giving way to apartments that accommodate considerably more people on the same footprint.

But Gzira has grown in other ways, too. Once widely regarded as run-down and depressed, the town’s economic profile has been greatly boosted by the presence of several large I-gaming agencies and other international offices. Its once quiet seafront now bustles with restaurants and cafes... often sprouting from one minute to the next. Needless to say, the demographics of the neighbourhood have likewise changed beyond recognition. Gzira is in fact home to one of Malta’s most multi-cultural communities, in which a dozen different languages can be heard in its streets. Property rental value has soared in step with all these changes. 

Yet this quantum leap forward seems to have come at a cost. Metre for metre, Gzira is arguably also the most densely over-developed part of the entire country. Now the area has been included in the high-rise zones, and several projects are lined up in the meantime – Manoel Island, Metropolis and the old Hertz building, to mention but three. 

It is against this backdrop that Gzira’s mayor Conrad Borg Manche made headlines by joining environmentalist protesters in the attempt to reclaim Manoel Island from its private lease-holders. 

But one step at a time. My first question for Borg Manche when we meet at the local council office is: can Gzira actually cope with the imminent construction and development boom?

“Let’s start with the obvious: Gzira is small. It only covers one and a half square kilometres... and that includes Manoel Island. You cannot really put a lot there, unless you provide for parking, and all the other basic infrastructural needs. It’s also very congested. On paper there are 8,000 people living in Gzira today. In reality, I would say there are many more...” 

Is that part of the reason that access to the foreshore of Manoel Island has become such an important issue for the local council?

“I didn’t connect the two issues myself. I saw Manoel Island as a separate issue. But it’s true: they can be connected. In fact I recently stated that, if you take Manoel Island away from us, all we’d be left with is traffic, exhaust, pavements and roads. There’s nowhere else to go... except Marina gardens, which will shortly be regenerated. But otherwise, Gzira is very congested. When construction comes into play, there’s a lot going on at the same time. And it’s bothering everyone. We try to co-ordinate, but it’s becoming too hectic...”

Does the council receive complaints to that effect? “Of course. All the time. Roads closed, traffic diversions, dust, noise... it’s understandable that they’d complain. What I tell them, however, is that I don’t have any control over projects. We do our best to co-ordinate: trying to avoid closing two roads at the same time, for instance. But I have no say in permits issued by the Planning Authority. Right now, for instance, I have three tower cranes less than 100 metres from each other. I can’t stop it: I can’t tell them, ‘listen, you have to wait for the other projects to finish’. If they have a PA permit, you have to give them a permit to start.”

 These projects do not include some of the major ones designated for the area: including Metropolis: a high-rise mega-project that has yet to get under way. In view of already existing problems: does he agree that Gzira should have been included in the high-rise zones in the first place?

“If it were just about high-rise in general, I’d say it depends where you put the development. It’s a double-edged sword. When you have high-rise, there will be an area which has to be left open. So it’s a choice: either you limit building heights to seven storeys, but the buildings will be all the way to the road; or you go up, but leave open areas surrounding the development. I don’t know exactly how I’d choose, but high-rise coupled with open spaces does make sense...”

Meanwhile, he adds that Gzira is currently left without almost any open space to speak of... and a large part of its own territory has been taken away from its residents. 

This brings us to the recent activism we saw at Manoel Island – Gzira’s ‘contested territory’, so to speak. Borg Manche himself led the cavalcade to reoccupy the place; but all along, most of the island remains contractually the property (on a temporary emphyteusis) of a private consortium. Before turning to the pivotal issue of access to the foreshore... part of the justification for the original concession was that it would relieve government of the expense of restoring the area’s historical heritage.

How would he react to the argument, then, that Midi consortium has already invested in the rehabilitation of Fort Manoel, and is therefore only trying to protect it from vandalism?

“As you say, I’ve been to Manoel Island recently. I can tell you how much restoration they did, because I remember how it was before. All they did was the fort: and even then, only the front bastions facing Valletta, and the inside. But the sides and the back haven’t been touched yet. As for the rest of the island, they’ve done nothing...”

Borg Manche took photos on his first incursion, which suggest that much of Manoel Island has indeed been left dilapidated. Wasn’t the upkeep and maintenance of the area also part of the original agreement?

“Of course. It’s part of the obligations of the concession, clearly stated in the contract...”

So, it seems, was guaranteeing access to the foreshore; and yet access has been sealed off and gated for several years. Does this suggest that the consortium may be too powerful to be defeated at institutional level?

“Going on how things happened lately, I don’t think they are powerful. At the end of the day, the power of the people showed that public outcry can change anything...”

Midi did in fact concede limited, controlled access on Saturdays. But what I meant was whether the authorities themselves can really do anything about a project in which such influential businessmen are involved. Recently, for instance, V18 chairman Jason Micallef tweeted that the government’s inaction suggested that Malta was ‘in the hands of six families’...

“To be honest, I spoke to the Prime Minister recently about something else, and I asked him about what was happening on Manoel Island. He said: ‘it’s up to you, you’re the mayor. Whatever you want to do, do it.’ I was left in total liberty to act on this issue...”

But doesn’t that also mean he was left on his own? 

“Not really. I think mayors should have the power to take action. And I enjoyed it, to be honest, because it felt like being a real mayor. We should not only look at bulbs in the street, and holes in the pavement. When an issue like this comes along, we have to act. We are elected by our constituents for that purpose.”

Does he feel he has support from the government?

“Yes. I did all my research on the contract, and what was said in parliament at that time, and I informed the government of my findings. I told them, listen we have to act. There is MEPA, it can do an enforcement. Now the ball is in your court.”

What about Midi itself? One assumes Borg Manche tried knocking on the door before climbing through the window...

“At the beginning, when I went to speak to Luke Coppini, all I wanted was for people to swim in summer – which is more normal than normal – and to use the fort once a year, for the day of the locality. I didn’t look into the contracts yet. But when I saw the attitude, I said: something is wrong here. It’s either that access to the foreshore is not in the contract at all – which would be illegal – or it’s there, and they’re breaking it... “

What sort of attitude?

“Don’t get me wrong. When I met Coppini it was all very cordial. But when it came down to my request, he told me that the board had decided not to give the fort to ‘outsiders’. That word ‘outsiders’ really hurt me a lot. Manoel Island has always been part of Gzira – Gzira is even named after it: ‘Il-Gzira Tal-Isqof’. That’s how deep the connection runs. And as a mayor and resident of Gzira, I am suddenly an ‘outsider’? So I decided to do my research...”

Borg Manche adds that he found more than he expected – i.e., that access to the foreshore was all along meant to be permitted.

“There are two parts of the story. One part is for the people to enjoy what they should have enjoyed these past 16 years. The other part is the consortium’s obligations towards their concession. As Midi itself has stated, it has Malta’s heritage at heart. If that’s the case... if it were me, I’d have started with Lazzaretto. It is completely dilapidated. A 400-year-old hospital, connected to cemeteries and other historic buildings... yet I saw the original plans: they even wanted to build villas on top of the cemeteries, where people who died of the plague or cholera were buried...”

But surely the project would have been vetted by the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage?  

 “I found the ministerial statement released by Hon. Zammit Dimech in September 1999. It says that no study had been done on Manoel Island’s subterranean heritage, including these cemeteries. There is also a network of tunnels that was once used to transport livestock. All the livestock imported into Malta used to come by ship, and be quarantined underground on Manoel Island. There are subterranean cattle-sheds, where the animals were housed. There’s a whole story there, and no one knows about it.  My concern now is that Manoel Island’s story is preserved. Nowhere else on Malta has anything like it. I think I am obliged to try and preserve it. In fact I have asked for jurisdiction there, so that I’ll know what’s happening. It’s not fair to just give an island away to someone to do whatever he wants with it...

This brings us to the crux of the matter. The process whereby Midi was granted a 99-year lease on the island was approved unanimously by both sides of the House. The contract itself was negotiated under both Nationalists and (briefly) Labour governments. So it seems we have collectively agreed through our elected representatives (without ever being directly consulted ourselves) to do exactly what Borg Manche has described: give the island away.

Was this a mistake?

“I think it was a mistake to grant concessions for both Tigne and Manoel Island to the same consortium. In fact, I read that the dumping of excavated material from Tigne was supposed to have been used for land reclamation in Manoel Island. It wasn’t: it was dumped at sea, and I am informed that Midi didn’t pay anything for it. I urge governments to look into these things. It cannot be that the rest of us pay our taxes, and these people get away with everything. It isn’t fair. And they’re making millions, while we have to pay everything, down to the last cent...”

Speaking of those millions: the government has always consistently argued that this kind of land-use for speculative gain is both inevitable and desirable, because ‘that’s what keeps the economic wheel turning’.   

This approach overlooks other potential land-use policies. Borg Manche himself has proposed turning Manoel Island into a national park. Is this really feasible in the bigger picture, though? Can Malta really afford to do without the investment generated by these projects, and utilise such potentially lucrative open spaces for non-commercial purposes?

“Absolutely. 100%. And I think it would a big mistake if they built on Manoel Island too. They’re going to ruin the whole place. And there is an argument to revisit the concession. The contract is with the government, so there’s nothing I can do myself apart from trying to keep up the pressure. But I don’t think the original plans for Tigne stipulated the sheer number of buildings that have gone up. Another thing Zammit Dimech said in that statement was that 30% of Tigne was to be built up, and 22% of Manoel Island. On Manoel Island, I don’t know where this 22% is going to happen: there is the yacht yard which takes up a big part of it, and the rest is the cemeteries and other heritage sites. And in Tigne, I am sure they’ve built more than 30% of the whole area. More than sure. But parliament decided on those lines; not on what is happening today. So we could say that the consortium already developed more than the units it had a permit for. If they’ve taken more than they should have taken in Tigne, then at least leave Manoel Island for the public...”

A similar sentiment was recently expressed by the mayor of Sliema, Anthony Chircop, who demanded access to the foreshore at Tigne. Coupled with expressions of popular support for the Manoel Island protests, we seem to be looking at the beginnings of a knock-on effect. Does Borg Manche expect more cases of civic action in future?

“Yes. Because as I said last time, Malta is small. If you keep taking up the foreshore, and taking from here and there: we will be left with nothing in the end. We’re not realising this. It’s very important. This is not France or Italy, where you can go wherever you like. This is Malta. There is hardly anywhere left to go; we can’t afford to lose any more.”