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Breach of contract - Mark Anthony Falzon

Transport Malta has just given the all-clear to the proposed mega-development and double-cream high-rise at the ITS site in St George’s Bay, on two conditions. The first is that the developers commit to a ‘green travel plan’ that would ease traffic congestion. By 2025, 10 per cent of employees, 20 per cent of hospitality employees, would be commuting by mini-van, and so on.

This first condition will be embraced by the developers – in the breach rather the observance. I can imagine their collective snigger as they scribble their name on the green travel plan, safe in the knowledge that it will be just that, a plan. I don’t suppose, and neither will they, that Transport Malta will be at the door every morning working out carpooling percentages.

The second condition is even more hilarious. It is up to government to come up with a ‘letter of commitment’ that would have it build a tunnel to the Regional Road, thus shunting traffic away from the area. (Straight into another, but let’s pretend the cars would just melt away.) Sounds to me rather like a New Year’s resolution, and equally consequential.

Funny faces all round, then, but for one thing. Suppose this turned out to be the once-in-a-lifetime resolution that was actually kept, and that the tunnel is, in fact, built. From what we’ve heard so far, it appears that the ones forking out the money would be us, the taxpayers of this fine republic.

At which point you really have to pinch yourself. So a developer gets a generous slice of prime public land for the sweet nothing sum of €15 million, evicting an educational institution in the process. That, and the promise of €123 million (as widely and reliably reported) in profit in the first three years alone. The project will require big infrastructure – but never mind, because public funds can become private funds.

The Italians have the wonderful expression cotto, stracotto, e biscottato. Loosely translated it means “shafted once, twice, and then some more”, and it’s perfectly applicable to the taxpayer here. We will have lost big money on the land deal and paid bigger money for the pleasure.

The third bit is yet another daylight robbery masterclass. The main victims will be the residents of Pembroke, who have joined forces in a resistance movement and are doing everything they can to prevent the project from going ahead. That doesn’t rule out the rest of us who do not live there, but who have some stake in this country.

A word about the history of Pembroke is necessary to understand what’s really happening, and why it’s wrong. What was once a leafy British enclave and tracts of coastal garrigue became a very extensive residential area inhabited by almost 4,000 people. Certainly it could have been better planned and all, but what’s done is done.

The people who moved to Pembroke over the years often benefited from affordable building plots, and in some cases outright social housing. Successive governments encouraged people to make the place their home, and to invest their money, energy and soul in it.

If the qualities of any place deserve to be safeguarded by the State, because it was the State that made it, Pembroke is that place

The unspoken terms of the agreement were that Pembroke would function primarily as a residential neighbourhood. It was really a kind of social contract between the State and residents specifically, and the State and all its citizens more broadly (because all citizens were equally eligible to become part of the agreement).

The government’s indecent proposal is for that contract to be torn up. Pembroke is about to be unilaterally redefined from a residential area into something else altogether. The flats and terraced homes will be literally and metaphorically overshadowed by the two towers. No wonder the residents feel cheated by those who, in theory at least, represent them.

It might appear to some that I’m stretching the argument, and that what’s about to happen in Pembroke is no different to what has happened in innumerable other places around the country. In any case, to make a place your home is not an entitlement to block all comers. The argument is both true and false.

It is false because the case at hand is not a simple matter of people buying property individually. Pembroke is an example of active place-making by the State, over a number of decades and involving large tracts of public land. If the qualities of any place deserve to be safeguarded by the State, because it was the State that made it, Pembroke is that place.

It is true, because there are thousands of people in Malta who find themselves property refugees. They include those whose terraced homes were suddenly overlooked by blocks of flats, those who lost the views that were part of their quali­ty of life, and so on. There is no comfort in knowing that the residents of Pembroke are not the exception.

One way to think about the built environment is as a social contract that secures us, citizens, and party to the agreement, a measure of security and peace of mind. The alternative is to see it as a patchwork of individual properties waiting to be converted into cash. A profitable game of musical chairs, perhaps, but one in which, as the people of Pembroke are about to discover, there are losers at every turn.

mafalzon@hotmail.com

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