Three reasons motorsport’s land grab is crass governance

Government is dishing out precious land that could cater for future industrial needs to accommodate an electorally strategic lobby group. But James Debono has three reasons why this is another example of bad governance

The proposed Hal Far circuit racing facility will incorporate the existing drag racing track and a karting facility
The proposed Hal Far circuit racing facility will incorporate the existing drag racing track and a karting facility

1. Re-zoning industrial land for other purposes may well increase pressure on ODZ land in the future

There is a reason why tracts of ODZ (outside development zones) land are designated as brownfield industrial zones: this stock is an insurance against resorting to putting industry outside the development zones in the future. If a new job-creating industry comes our way, the land to accommodate it must be found without resorting to taking rural land.

Back in 2018, the government dropped plans for industrial expansion at Wied iz-Żring in Żejtun due to justified popular opposition. A year earlier, it was the Labour  government that approved changes to the local plan to expand the Ħal Far industrial area by 19,000q.m on land now identified for a motorsport development.

The aim was to facilitate the development of additional industrial units at Ħal Far Industrial Area, and improve the environmental amenity of the area.

Now the government will once again have to change local plans to accommodate the racetrack. As noted by Green party leader Carmel Cacopardo, it simply is “not normal for Malta Industrial Parks to release land forming part of an industrial estate for any purpose whatsoever”.

Apart from these areas, the proposed racetrack will also include approximately 60,000sq.m of ODZ land that is surrounded by industrial developments. This land would come in handy if plans need to be changed further to accommodate future industrial expansion.

The Prime Minister argues this expansion problem can be solved by resorting to vertical industrial development, but this suggestion is not even backed up by studies assessing present and future industrial needs, particularly of those sectors the country is attracting.

All kinds of industries have different land-use needs. Vertical industrial development could intensify urban sprawl and undermine the distinction between purely industrial development, and office developments.  This is why industrial zones are still considered as “ODZs” and are not included in the development zone.

Back in 2009, a part of Ħal Far site had been identified for the development of four land-based wind turbines, certainly a more environmentally beneficial impact than a racetrack. These plans were never followed through. The racetrack proposal just comes in the wake of other plans to change the industrial designation of areas like Burmarrad and Ta’ Qali, to accommodate office and retail developments.

2. Malta is small and even industrial zones are in proximity of protected areas and residential hamlets. A noisy racetrack may be more invasive to its surroundings than a factory

It is true that the Ħal Far racetrack is being proposed on a site surrounded by industrial development which lacks any ecological features worthy of protection.

Yet the racetrack inevitably results in noise pollution, and is less than 1km away from an Area of Ecological Importance and 600m from a rural residential hamlet. The Environment and Resources Authority will be duty-bound to assess these impacts before pronouncing itself on this development.

Moreover the Planning Authority is bound to assess the wider implications on land use, of sacrificing a sizeable brownfield site which may well be put to better use.

Once again the government gives the impression that it can dispose of its land as it pleases. It is unclear whether studies on the impact on these areas have preceded the decision to allocate the land for a racetrack.

Instead, we are assisting to another case of piecemeal and project-driven changes to the local plans, instead of a holistic masterplan which prioritises future needs and long-term planning.

3. Governments are not there to please every lobby group under the sun, but are there to set priorities. It remains a mystery why €20 million should be invested on a racetrack to accommodate one hobby amongst many others

Government is reassuring us that no taxpayers’ money will be spent on the €20 million racetrack, as the money is being spent from a national development fund funded by the cash for passports scheme.

But irrespective of the source, this is still public money which can be spent on many other priorities and worthy causes.

In this case, the government is choosing to spend a large amount of money on one particular popular hobby, at the exclusion of others; and in the absence of any attempt to set an order of priorities based on environmental, social and health considerations.

And all this on the eve of an election where government’s primary concern seems to be that of securing the votes of enthusiasts.

Moreover all sports and recreational activities are limited by land use considerations.

Golf courses are a no-go in Malta because of their impact on both land and water resources. There are many skiing enthusiasts and mountain climbers who travel abroad to practice their sports; but nobody would dream of building a mountain equipped with artificial snow to make ski enthusiasts happy!

And despite the contribution to physical fitness, many sports disciplines suffer from chronic lack of funds. In the end, governments are not there to please the loudest lobby groups or even to make hobbyists happier, but to prioritise and offer leadership.

Being able to say no is also a mark of good governance.