[ANALYSIS] Running with the hares, hunting with the hounds…

JAMES DEBONO was at the Planning Authority’s meeting that ignited a high-rise revolution that could now be unstoppable: at the heart of the problem, he writes, is a political class that is unmistakably entranced by the business caste of construction developers

Not in favour: PA chairman Vince Cassar (left) contemplates the Townsquare development. PA chief executive Johann Buttigieg sought to remind the board that the project was in line with policy
Not in favour: PA chairman Vince Cassar (left) contemplates the Townsquare development. PA chief executive Johann Buttigieg sought to remind the board that the project was in line with policy

Labour leader Joseph Muscat can afford to hide behind a smokescreen of opaque decision-making and technical policies that have been tailor-made for Malta’s elite of construction developers and real estate moguls. And the Opposition does not have this luxury, especially when its own voters expect it to lead by example and put up a show of veritable protest against a business caste it once served when in power.

For the past weeks Muscat has been talking about his epic struggle against the establishment and political elites. But on Thursday it became clear that the beneficiaries of his government’s policies to promote high-rise development are big commercial groups like Gasan and Tumas, both of which are incidentally involved in the consortium behind the new gas fired power station in Delimara.

Still, so far Muscat has not even had to show his face to defend these decisions.

The surreptitious way Mriehel was added by the government to the list of places where high-rise can be allowed, after the conclusion of a public consultation, and the fact that the Mriehel towers proposed by the Gasan and Tumas groups were approved before the approval of a master plan for the locality, speak volumes.

At Mriehel, where disused fields became an industrial hub, the absence of popular, residential opposition to the project allowed the government to ride roughshod over long-term concerns expressed by NGOs on the impact on Mdina views. In isolation from other buildings – which are bound to rise in the near future – the new buildings as shown in 50mm-wide angle photomontages, did not have a shocking impact.

Because 2016 is only just the start.

In isolation from other buildings – which are bound to rise in the near future – the new buildings as shown in 50mm-wide angle photomontages, did not have a shocking impact
In isolation from other buildings – which are bound to rise in the near future – the new buildings as shown in 50mm-wide angle photomontages, did not have a shocking impact

Forgotten Sliema

The Sliema Townsquare high-rise, also proposed by the Gasan Group, posed a greater difficulty for the government, at least in view of the impact. Ten entire months of excavation and four years of construction, a massive impact on the residential community in a ‘deep blue’ Nationalist locality which has however had a fair share of floaters and switchers.

Moreover the 38-storey Townsquare tower rising above Ghar id-Dud views has a more symbolic impact than four smaller towers in an industrial area. The vote itself, seven for and six against, reflects a degree of hesitance, with Planning Authority chairman Vince Cassar and deputy chairperson Elisabeth Ellul voting against the project, deeming it excessive and not in line with policy.

Yet the vote of the government’s own representative on the board, Labour MP Joe Sammut, in favour of the project, coupled with the stance and constant reminders from executive chairman Johann Buttigieg that the project “is in line with policy” clearly indicate that the project had the government’s backing. For those attending the meeting, Buttigieg’s intervention immediately after the chairman’s declaration that he would vote against had all the attributes of a whip enforcing the official party line.

Still, the dissent of the PA chairman – which I believe was genuine and reflects the integrity of a veteran public servant – sends the message that the decision was a half-hearted one. This weakens the impression that the decision was concocted by Castille and makes it look as a decision taken by relatively unknown board members. In all this Muscat and his party have kept aloof simply because they have not been politically engaged by the Opposition. 

The absence of the Environment Resources Authority from a board meeting disussing two major applications casts another shadow on the effectiveness of the demerger of the planning and environment arms of what used to be MEPA.  What is sure is that as the law stands, the authority is not even empowered to send a substitute representative whenever its chairman Victor Axiak is indisposed. For had ERA been present and voted against, the Sliema tower would not have been approved.

The PN hamstrung

One cannot reproach the Opposition’s representative on the PA board for inconsistency. MP Ryan Callus, whose integrity is beyond question, spoke strongly against the “illegal and political decision” to include Mriehel in the high-rise zone.

Mark Gasan, one of the Gasan family’s scions (left): The PN’s hesitation on the Sliema project could be the immediate concern of not alienating the Gasan family and business group
Mark Gasan, one of the Gasan family’s scions (left): The PN’s hesitation on the Sliema project could be the immediate concern of not alienating the Gasan family and business group

He was less vociferous on the Sliema project but still voted against – agreeing with Vince Cassar that the project was excessive.

In contrast, Labour MP Joe Sammut, who contributed nothing to the discussion, gave the Sliema project a vital vote, with the project being approved by the paper-thin majority of 7 against 6 votes.

Much more vociferous than Callus were Sliema PN councillors Paul Radmilli and Pierre Portelli, who presented a united front with Green Party councillor Michael Briguglio against the project. Absent completely were Labour’s councillors.

But the Sliema council’s vociferous opposition was not reflected in public statements by Opposition leader Simon Busuttil who has been hesitant on taking up the high-rise issue. Officially the PN has issued statements on the Mriehel high-rise, where it did not stand to make any political capital, but it left the PN-led council to fight on its own with regard to the Sliema Townsquare high-rise, where the party stood to gain from popular opposition.

Neither has the PN supported Marlene Farrugia’s insistence on a moratorium on high-rise until a national master plan is formulated.

The reason for the party’s hesitation on the Sliema project could be the immediate concern of not alienating the Gasan family and business group – which although linked to the present administration by the power plant gas project is not, unlike the Tumas Group, identified with the party now in government.

But the major reason is that Busuttil is well aware that up to a few years ago, it was the same PN which was perceived as the developers’ party. It was only on the eve of the 2008 election that the PN started heeding the green vote. The resulting one-seat majority it narrowly clinched however undermined the party’s ability to push any project that could face popular opposition.

This political inertia allowed a pro-business Labour Party to move deep into Nationalist territory, delivering tailor-made policies for developers as soon as elected to government. And with his party financially bankrupt, Busuttil may be wary of antagonising developers who could hand the PN a lifeline, while hoping that dissatisfaction with the present government’s environmental policies will still benefit his party at the next election.

But the question remains as to why Busuttil did not stick his neck out for loyal Tenth District voters fuming at Townsquare’s 38 storeys, and instead talk abstractedly about the Freeport’s expansion – a locality run by a Labour-led council and which has suffered from noise pollution from this enterprise for the past decades.

As the Labour government stands to gain from the Opposition’s unwillingness to politicise the high-rise issue, Busuttil finds himself racing with the hares and hunting with the hounds. But in this race he cannot compete with Muscat, now clearly identifying his party with the developers’ lobby.

Busuttil may well at least appeal to that sector of the population which feels betrayed by Muscat’s sell-out to developers. Callus’s vote at the PA meeting may have sent a negative message to the developers (who were visably angry in a post meeting chat with Callus), but Busuttil’s caution has also attracted criticism from residents.

Had the PN mobilised opposition to the Sliema project, it would have become more difficult for Muscat to stay out of the fray. Busuttil could have forced Muscat to show his hand, instead of allowing him to hide behind technical decisions, and instead expose him to be part of the same establishment he loves to scorn. Busuttil is simply making Muscat’s life easier.

More in National