The approval by a majority of the Planning Authority board of the db Group’s City Centre project is simply disgraceful because it highlights a very worrying trend: the ignoring of the voices of ordinary citizens in favour of the interests of big business. I find it utterly incredible that in this day and age, a project is approved when so many people are against it.

This opposition includes not only many residents of the area impacted by the project but also three local councils, Pembroke, St Julian’s and Swieqi, as well as 12 NGOs and the Inter-diocesan Environment Commission. I take my hat off to the members of the PA board who voted against the project.

I am particularly irked, as a local councillor, that the opposition of three local councils has been ignored. Excuse me, but what sense does it make to have local councils and then ignore their protests on behalf of the residents they represent? Who is most interested in the welfare of the residents of localities, the local councils or big business? I think the answer is more than obvious.

Such environmental issues as the db Group’s City Centre project are of national interest and it would be a great and serious mistake if we let partisan politics influence our perception of such controversies. We have to start thinking on the lines of rejecting projects which negatively affect the standard of living of ordinary citizens. Otherwise, we will have regressed to the days of the first part of the 20th century when Malta was dominated by a small group of rich families who were so powerful in Maltese society that they ensured that all public policy would simply be an instrument to serve their own interests and to the detriment of the rest of the population.

What is so ironic is the fact that many of the people behind such projects are the ones who have the luxury to live in areas where they are free from noise pollution, parking problems and other nuisances which negatively impinge on one’s daily life. It is clearly a case of making sure that nothing unpleasant happens in one’s back yard but not caring at all about what happens in the backyard of others.

We have to start thinking on the lines of rejecting projects which negatively affect the standard of living of ordinary citizens

I will be the first to admit that the construction industry is a very important part of our national economy. I also recognise the fact that it is a major employer and should be given all the support possible by the government. However, we must be very careful that it does not come to a point where the country is dominated by big business. I am reminded of what US President Abraham Lincoln said about democracy, which he defined as “government of the people, by the people, and for the people”. In other words, the interests of the people should always come first in a democracy.

This Labour government, led by Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, has worked wonders for Malta. There is absolutely no credible alternative to it and its track record is really impressive. Being “pro-business” is also to be praised but one has to set limits to this. When it comes to a point of choosing between the interests of big business and those of ordinary citizens, a democratic government is obliged to give priority to the latter.

I have always stated that a Labour government should cooperate with big business as much as possible but should also keep all businessmen at arm’s length. One of Labour’s most important ideals has always been to help the downtrodden and those most in need of state help. This also applies to environmental matters.

We cannot let ordinary people suffer hardships so that some businessmen can fatten their pockets. Projects which negatively impact localities and their residents should be rejected as a matter of principle.

I also make an appeal to Maltese intellectuals to make their voices heard. I am glad to note that a number of university lecturers publicly spoke out against the db Group’s City Centre project. This is to be commended. We badly need quality discourse and debates where environmental matters and all other matters of national interest are concerned. Otherwise, we will go on having a situation where politics continues to be dominated by emotion and lack of substance.

We cannot afford any longer to have important national issues reduced to farcical levels by many paragons of ignorance who unfortunately today dominate the social media. We need serious, informed debates of a high calibre and the first questions we should ask ourselves should be: “How can we protect our environment from the ravages of big business?” – “How can we rediscover Labour’s 1996 battle-cry: Iċ-Ċittadin L-Ewwel (The Citizen First)?”

Desmond Zammit Marmarà is a Balzan Labour councillor.

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