Much ado about a Paceville masterplan | Deborah Schembri

Proposals for a regeneration of Malta’s largest entertainment district has been met with anxiety and scepticism by residents and entrepreneurs alike. Planning secretary Deborah Schembri however insists that such fears are premature and misplaced

Parliamentary secretary for planning Deborah Schembri
Parliamentary secretary for planning Deborah Schembri

If there is one national stereotype with which we can all (more or less) agree, it is that ‘urban planning’ is not one of Malta’s fortes as a nation.

Up until the early 1990s there was no autonomous competent authority to speak of at all: matters of infrastructure, land-use policy, the approval or otherwise of construction projects, etc., all fell directly to the relevant government departments and ministries. 

With the advent of the Planning Authority in 1992 – and also the local plans, which sought to give direction to future development – one would have expected the haphazard nature of urban sprawl to somehow be brought under control. Yet it was over the next two decades that most of what we now consider the most brazen planning blasphemies actually took place. The elegance that was the Sliema seafront made way for today’s uneven ‘broken teeth’ skyline... and the same pattern – i.e., earlier, better-planned neighbourhoods ruined by shortsighted greed – has repeated itself in various other parts of Malta and Gozo. 

Elsewhere, the PA’s own policies seem to be constantly amended to allow for this or that project to go ahead... resulting in frequent contradictions, and often wildly different applications of the same planning laws. Without going into too much detail, there has been a steady and palpable erosion of public trust in the institution as a whole.

On paper, then, one would think it a good idea to change our overall approach to urban planning: for instance, by designating specific areas like Paceville for comprehensive development according to a masterplan. The idea in fact makes eminent sense, as it seems to avoid repeating the architectural and infrastructural mistakes of yesteryear. 

Yet no sooner did the government unveil its masterplan for Paceville last month, than – as Deborah Schembri will later put it – ‘all hell broke loose’. Drawn up by international consultants Mott MacDonald (among others), the plan was instantly criticised for seeming to propose expropriation of private land for equally private real estate projects. Tempers flared at a public consultation meeting, where it emerged that Mott MacDonald’s had previously done consultancy work for Mercury House: a high-rise development that (according to the masterplan) will occupy pride of place at the very centre of the redesigned entertainment hub. 

As the parliamentary secretary responsible for planning, Deborah Schembri was herself visibly uncomfortable as these and other details emerged in public. She has since ordered a review of the masterplan... although throughout this interview, she will insist that it was only a first draft... and as such, was all along going to be amended anyway.

But let’s start with the alleged conflict of interest. The decision to hire Mott MacDonald was taken by PA CEO Johann Buttigieg, and as such the responsibility for due diligence rests with him. Does Schembri still have confidence in Buttigieg, despite the fact that he did not inform her of the potential conflict?

“There are two things to bear in mind: one, the work done by Mott Macdonald  on Mercury House was done via the architect Zara Hadid. From what we were told at the planning committee, it concerned mechanical engineering work within one branch of Mott MacDonald. It is a large organisation employing 16,000 people. There are Chinese walls between the departments; they all know who they’re working for, but not the nitty gritty of what each section is working on... in any case their advice was confined to the infrastructural aspect only.”

That may be so, but they were still paid for their consultancy work, and there is still clearly a rapport between Mott MacDonald and Mercury House...

“The second consideration is that the initial expression of interest was done by the Planning Authority; the PA dealt with everything that had to do with Mott MacDonald and Broadway Manning [an architectural firm also contracted by the PA]. The government is independent of the PA, and vice versa. So when negotiations were going on, the government was not aware of the exact situation. The way I see it, Johann Buttigieg had a call to make, and he made it. It was within his remit to take a decision at a point when he knew the situation. In my opinion, he was not obliged to tell the government, at that point, that Mott MacDonald had given advice to Mercury House...”

But shouldn’t he have informed the government anyway? Schembri herself didn’t know about it when she presented the masterplan. It proved to be an embarrassment for her government. And isn’t it an important consideration, given that the people drawing up the plan were on the payroll of one of the leading property speculators in the area?

“The PA is autonomous, they take their own decisions independently of the government. This autonomy comes with benefits, but sometimes also with drawbacks. We cannot expect to have autonomy from each other, and take the benefits without the drawbacks. So when something like this happens, we don’t ask: ‘why didn’t you tell us?’ That’s what autonomy means...”

It also means that no one takes responsibility. As a result of this decision – and other factors – the resulting masterplan has to go back to the drawing board. To be brutally honest, it was a fiasco. Are we to understand that everything will simply carry on as if nothing happened?

“No, quite the other way round. We are not carrying on as if nothing has happened. We will be reviewing the submissions to date. But with all respect you are the one saying it was a conflict of interest. Sincerely, I don’t see the conflict you are claiming. You are stating premises as if they are facts, when they are not. Mott MacDonald had nothing to do with any of the towers in the masterplan, including Mercury House... so how can they have come up with a masterplan that favours Mercury House, when they have nothing to do with the towers?”

But it’s not just about towers. The masterplan overrides a development brief issued in 2005, which had proposed a public square on the Mercury House project site. The new plan transfers this square to the site of St George’s Park: which belongs to someone else, and is home to several residents. The same plan even proposes expropriation of private property for this purpose... 

Schembri here interjects: “I need to clarify the expropriation issue. But go on...”

...and the net result is that the Mercury House site will substantially increase in value. So if this plan is enacted, one developer will benefit enormously at the expense of others. And Mott MacDonald happens to be his client.

“OK, let’s take a step back. The PA, which is autonomous, took a decision, which we got to know about recently... and the people are concerned. I understand this; I am concerned too, because I don’t want people to think that a masterplan like this – which benefits the whole area – was the result of anything improper. Now: what is the government doing? We are saying: let’s have a review of this decision, just to put everyone’s minds at rest. Not necessarily because I believe there is a conflict of interest: that’s irrelevant. I want people to be reassured that nothing bad went on in the background...” 

The masterplan, she reminds me, is still in draft form. “It still needs to pass through a sieve: more public consultations, where people can tell us what they feel about it, and how it can be changed. Entrepreneurs are not happy with it either; we need to listen to them too. But this was obvious, because when you have a first draft of anything, you have to start with the site itself... then you start fitting in what people want, as part of the puzzle. When you have a clearer picture, you try to see how the objectives of the masterplan can be intermeshed with people’s expectations, to get a good final product.”

This, she adds, is why a nine-week consultation period is needed. “I am encouraging people to come forward, not just with what they don’t like about the plan, but also how they think it could be improved. This is the way forward. Every piece of information will be assessed, and we will come up with a revised version. Then there’ll be another six-week consultation period on the revised version...”

Quite a few complaints and suggestions have already been put forward, not least by Paceville residents who fear being evicted from their homes. Are their fears justified? After all, the plan itself actively proposes expropriation... even (oddly) of a tract of public land, which the government already owns...

“I think people are misunderstanding the expropriation issue. As you say, here is public and private property involved in the masterplan. In cases of public property – widening a square, for instance – it’s not a problem. When it comes to private land, however...”

She picks up a pen and draws a rough diagram on a piece of paper. 

“Let’s say that part of the masterplan envisages a street passed through this area so that a tower can be built on one side, over here.  This street would have to pass through private property. If this project is going to happen, it has to happen as part of a comprehensive plan. So if a street needs to be passed through private land, the developer needs to come to an agreement with the residents for it to happen. So it’s not a matter of ‘expropriation’. Those properties will NOT be expropriated. Expropriation means government taking private land for a public purpose. This” – indicating the diagram – “is not a public purpose; it’s part of a comprehensive development. So nobody will leave their home unless they agree to.

That’s not how it was presented to the public. The masterplan even specifies a figure – €151 million – in compensation for expropriated land...

“I did not write the masterplan. I am seeing it like everyone else. I am not the Planning Authority...”

She is however the parliamentary secretary responsible for planning...

“Yes, and I will take responsibility... when it’s done. But we haven’t reached that point yet. We’re still at the beginning. I’m not happy with the first draft either. One of the things I asked Broadway Manning was: if they knew exactly where all the residences were, would they have drawn up a different masterplan? They replied: no, it would not have made one inch of a difference. Because this was a first draft, and they were only looking at the place generically: what best fits the area; what gives the best access to historical sites; opening up access to the valley; enlarging the sandy beach areas... At a later stage, that information would become relevant. But at this stage, the draft masterplan is just a guide to start working on.”

Schembri stresses that the emphasis on expropriation and other issues is deflecting attention from the real purpose of the exercise. 

“I don’t want Paceville to be developed haphazardly. Because that’s what will happen. Paceville is a place zoned for tall buildings. They will be built with or without a masterplan; and if we don’t have a comprehensive strategy for infrastructure, transport, parking, waste management, and so on... then it will happen anyway, and we will be sorry that we didn’t do it before. I know I am in the hot seat, I know it is difficult to actually do it. But I’m not going to say: ‘this isn’t easy, so I’ll shove it to whoever comes after me’. That’s not right. This is a good initiative. The problem is that everyone is thinking that this first draft is a final, cast-in-stone thing. It isn’t.”

Schembri seems exasperated by such widespread doubt; but isn’t it also reasonable to expect scepticism? This issue comes in the wake of numerous other environmental polemics – the Zonqor Point controversy, the approval of high-rise projects in Sliema and Mriehel... and here we have another proposal (in draft form, granted) which seems to favour hand-picked developers at the expense of others. And which also seems riddled with conflicts... we haven’t discussed Franco Mercieca’s, for instance. How can he chair a parliamentary committee on this issue, when he has a financial stake in a project that will exponentially increase in value as a result of the plan being discussed? 

“I haven’t heard his views on what his interests are in this. I am presuming that this will come up at the next parliamentary committee meeting. And I want to know what his position will be as well.  There are parliamentary procedures, and I am sure that whatever he will be doing will be according to parliamentary practice. At the end of the today, the committee is made up of members from both sides of the House; if there is a problem with the chair, the committee members should be the ones to say something about it. But at this point in time, I cannot take a position when I haven’t heard his side of the story.”

Fair enough, but it doesn’t leave us with very much, does it? The PA takes no responsibility for engaging the clients of the biggest net [private] beneficiary of the entire project, and nothing happens; Franco Mercieca doesn’t declare a blatant conflict of interest, and nothing happens...

“I don’t think it’s fair to say nothing is happening. There will be a review on Mott MacDonald’s work, and we have to see what they come up with, too. But for argument’s sake let’s say there was a conflict of interest – I don’t think there was, but that’s not the point – the important thing now is that the review is carried out, to put people’s minds at rest. I want people to look at this plan, and say that it is a sincere effort by the government to do something that is good for Paceville. Because we’re trying to open up the foreshore to the public; at the moment, it’s all hotels. It’s not just developers who will benefit. We want to open up the valley, so that it becomes accessible to everyone. When I mentioned this to a journalist, the reaction was: ‘I didn’t know there was a valley in Paceville’. This is part of the problem: Paceville’s potential is all hidden. Even historical sites; most people don’t know they even exist. What I’m saying is this: tall buildings will happen. Progress will happen. Development will happen. Let’s not allow it to happen haphazardly.”