Nobody in Labour will take paternity for the yacht marina nobody wants

Not even the Prime Minister wants paternity of the Marsaskala marina, a sign of embarrassment in the face of unexpectedly strong public reaction. So why issue a call for bidders with detailed plans of pontoons taking over the entire bay?

Protestors gathered in Marsaskala to protest the yacht marina (photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)
Protestors gathered in Marsaskala to protest the yacht marina (photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)

On Sunday, Prime Minister Robert Abela insisted that despite the issue of pre-qualification questionnaire (PQQ) for bidders interested in a concession for a yacht marina concession in Marsaskala bay, the project was still at a consultation stage and “nothing is cast in stone”.

But how can Abela equate a formal tendering procedure aimed at gathering feedback from businessmen interested in the project, approved without public consultation with residents?

A pre-qualification questionnaire is not an open suggestion box but is a formal procedure meant to lead to a ‘dialogue procedure’ with a candidate willing to take on the project. In this sense instead of a tender being issued after the setting up of clear rules limiting the development, the rules will be agreed upon with the bidders themselves. This approach is a prime example of a project rather than community driven approach to development.

In this case the PQQ is aimed at finding an investor to carry out detailed plans already outlined by Transport Malta in its call. In fact, marina plans included in the document published by TM show how the whole creek would be taken up by pontoons, effectively blocking off all the foreshore where people swim and fish.

And while Abela is now adamant in saying that swimming zones should not be impacted by any marina development, the question remains: why were these areas included in the PQQ documents? And how far can one isolate these swimming zones from an all-enveloping marina, which changes the very nature of the bay?

In such a case one would expect public consultation with residents to be undertaken before any tender is issued. In this case the tender has the reverse effect, as it is aimed at conditioning the entire planning process, which has not even started. For why issue a tender for something which can later by turned down? In this sense, the consultation process is skewed, with businessmen interested in the marina project being given precedence over the local community.   

Moreover Transport Malta would not have issued a tender in the absence of the central government’s go-ahead.  It is unconceivable to think that the Cabinet was unaware of TM’s actions.

Yet even the only critic from Labour’s side, backbencher Jean Claude Micallef, has been careful in emphasising that the “project is not coming from the Labour Party or from the Prime Minister.”

Ian Borg’s reluctant paternity

It was Infrastructure Minister Ian Borg, whose portfolio includes Transport Malta, who came closest to accepting paternity of the proposed marina, citing the “enormous number of Maltese residents who are buying pleasure boats” as justification for new marinas.” Yet even Borg was hesitant on taking ownership of the project, by shifting the blame on the 2006 local plan, which identified Xemxija Bay and Marsaskala as two localities which can be used for the development of marinas. “Since these localities are in the local plan and have been approved by Parliament, the Transport authority decided it would be best to go for this option. Nonetheless, we are open to discussions,” Borg said.

And in a further indication of Cabinet complicity, instead of putting the brakes on his colleagues, Environment Minister Aaron Farrugia came up with the most absurd defence of the yacht marina, comparing negative public reaction to a yacht marina for pleasure-boat owners in Marsaskala to essential national infrastructure like the airport, freeport and waste plants.

“I can point to the Malta freeport or the airport. Nobody in Gudja wants the airport there,” he continued, adding that a referendum among Gudja residents would surely result in a vote in favour of moving it elsewhere.”

But the strong public reaction which culminated in Moviment Graffitti’s protest, attended by hundreds of residents against the proposed marina, seems to have caught the government wrong-footed.

For the underhanded move by Transport Malta to issue a tender for a yacht marina in Marsaskala on the eve of the Santa Marija feast, was probably intended to go un-noticed during the lull of the summer holidays.

Blame it on the local plans

In the face of opposition including that from the Labour-led local council, Robert Abela is giving the impression that no final decision has been taken while attributing the paternity of the project to local plans approved by the Nationalist administration in 2006.

Yet as Abela himself recognised on Sunday, this does not oblige the present government to follow suit and issue a concession. For in reality the government is under no obligation to carry out all the projects mentioned in the local plan. What would have been the use of electing a Labour government if it is bound to carry out the decisions taken by a Nationalist government?

Moreover, Labour itself had disregarded the local plan when it transferred land for the development of the Jordanian-owned American University on land zoned as a national park in the local plan. The local plan cited by the present government as justification for the marina also links this development to residential and commercial development as part of the redevelopment of the ex-National Swimming Pool pitch site.  This raises the question on whether the present government is also bound by this part of the approved local plan.

Continuity with Muscat?

The intention to develop a marina in Marsaskala was already announced by the Muscat administration in the Budget Speech for 2017 as part of an ongoing strategy to improve Malta’s profile as a yachting centre. This was followed by a call for bids for the design, construction and operation of a yacht marina in Marsaskala Bay issued in June 2018. This suggests that Abela has inherited this decision from his disgraced predecessor. He was also probably misled by the absence of a strong public reaction to previous plans, ignoring the fact that the mood in the country for development projects has changed over the past few years.

It also suggests that Labour is bound by some understanding with an invisible but strong and persistent lobby aimed at the commercialisation of Marsaskala.

In this sense the marina is one more piece in the jigsaw, in a process which included the transfer of the national pool and surrounding ODZ land to Sadeen Group, the zoning of the Jerma area for the development of 170 apartments in eight-storey high blocks, the development of a massive waterpolo club with a restaurant on 2,300sq.m of reclaimed seabed right in the middle of the bay, and a mysterious design contest for the regeneration of the area by the Malta Tourism Authority.

And this explains why Abela is so keen to emphasise that “some sort of investment has to happen in the Marsaskala area” and that a breakwater would be beneficial during periods of rough seas to avoid having garbage or dirt rise from the sea to the seafront.

Abela went as far as lamenting that the public takes a knee-jerk reaction to the announcement of large-scale projects like the Marsaskala marina. “As a country, we can’t go in the direction of saying no to everything when we haven’t even started talking,” he stated.

But faced with the under-handed manner through which the marina has been proposed in a tender document aimed for bidders and not for the general public, how did Abela expect the public to react?  For it is opaque moves like this one which feed the kind of public scepticism which annoys Robert Abela.