Updated | Axiak’s views on Sliema tower obscured at PA meeting

Environment and Resources Authority chairman Victor Axiak refuses to reveal the contents of a detailed memo sent to a board member on the Townsquare project

Environment and Resources Authority chairman Victor Axiak
Environment and Resources Authority chairman Victor Axiak

The part of a  memo sent to a member of the Planning Board by Environment and Resources Authority chairman Victor Axiak, in which he laid out his views on the impact of the 38-storey tower proposed in Sliema, was not read out at the public hearing on Thursday when the project was approved by a wafer thin majority of one vote. 

Axiak was indisposed and did not attend the meeting. This meant that Axiak, as representative of the Environment and Resources Authority (ERA), could not vote on both the four towers proposed for Mriehel by the Tumas and Gasan groups and the 38-storey tower proposed for Sliema by the Gasan group. Axiak had expressed concern in an email on the visual impact of the four towers proposed at Mriehel, which was read by board member Timothy Gambin during the morning session, when this development was being discussed. Gambin, an expert in underwater archaeology, was a vociferous supporter of both projects during Thursday’s public hearing.

Axiak told MaltaToday that on the eve of the meeting as soon as  he "realised that due to health reasons" he would not be able to attend the PA board meeting he sent a detailed memo on both the Mriehel and the Sliema tower high rise projects to one particular board member telling him to use the email as he deemed fit during the meeting. 

"I specifically asked this member to make use of the memo as he deems fit, during the discussion. We also agreed that this would not in any way condition the way this member would be voting...I decided to send this memo to a single person of the PA board since I felt  that if i send it to all the board members, and being myself absent from the whole proceedings of the meetings. it would place unjust and unfair pressure on other members."

Part of this memo dealing with Mriehel was read by board member Timmy Gambin.  But no reference was made to Axiak's memo during the afternoon session dealing with the proposed tower in Sliema.

In further comments to MaltaToday Axiak insisted that he still has "full respect and trust in the integrity of all board members including the one to whom I sent the memo."

Axiak told MaltaToday that after the meeting he also sent a copy of this memo to ERA board and to Environment Minister Jose Herrera.

"I thought that I owed them a full explanation on what had happened as a result of the media coverage on this matter."

But at this stage he would prefer not to publish the memo especially in view of ERA's pending decision on whether to appeal against the two developments.

"I am not yet ready to publish the contents of this memo since ERA still needs to decide whether to appeal or not, against the PA's decision on these two high rise development."

In the part of the memo addressing the Mriehel proposal  Axiak questioned the quality of the photomontages presented by the developer especially the one depicting the view of Mriehel from Mdina. The development was approved by ten votes against two.

But in the evening session, no reference was made in the meeting to any comments sent by Axiak.  

Asked by MaltaToday why he felt the need to comment on the development proposed at Mriehel and not on the one proposed in Sliema, Axiak made it clear that his memo included comments on both projects.  

When asked why these comments were not read, Axiak simply insisted that he made his views clear on both projects. Axiak refused to reveal the drift of the comments sent to the board.

Although Axiak’s comments had no bearing on the vote, as only members who are present can participate in the vote, his comments could have influenced other members of the board on the way they voted.

The 38-storey tower was approved by 7 votes against 6. Those who voted against included PA chairman Vince Cassar, deputy chairman Elizabeth Ellul and opposition representative Ryan Callus. The government representative, Labour MP Joe Sammut, voted in favour of the project. 

Before the vote was taken executive chairman Johann Buttigieg declared that the project as proposed was in full conformity with planning policies, thus contradicting the views of chairman Cassar, who noted that the project was not surrounded by four streets as required by the policy regulating tall buildings. 

Had Axiak voted against the tower permit, the chairman would have had the final say through his casting vote. 

When asked by MaltaToday, Axiak refused to declare how he would have voted if he had been present at the meeting.

“My views on the environment are well known and I have shared my views with both the Environment and Resources Authority board and the Planning Authority board,” he said.

In comments on the project’s Environment Planning Statement the ERA noted that the impact on residents, played down somewhat in the EPS as ‘short term’, would be indeed significant because excavation was going to take 10 months and construction four years, in an already densely populated area that surrounds the proposed tower. It also described the suggestion to residents to “keep windows shut” during the construction of the  Sliema tower an “unreasonable”.

The ERA also expressed concern on the visual impact of the project. While the EPS consultants, who are commissioned by the Gasan Group, warned that the project would have a major impact when seen from Tower Road and from the Preluna Hotel, the ERA insisted that the project would also have a major impact when seen from Manoel Island and the Valletta ferry landing.  

Axiak also revealed that the government is addressing the legal anomaly, which prevented ERA from sending a substitute for Axiak in view of his illness. The problem is that only board members whose names are published in the government gazette can participate in board meetings.

“The situation can be easily addressed by appointing a substitute member who can take my place whenever there is an indisposition.”

Axiak also confirmed that he was indisposed at an ERA meeting held on Friday during which the authority decided not to appeal the board decision. ERA has now announced that a final decision on whether to appeal will be taken after August 15.

When contacted by MaltaToday  and asked why he did not read the part of the memo dealing with the Sliema tower, board member Tiimmy Gambin said that he preferred not to comment on this matter.