Why are we not surprised? - Petra Caruana Dingli
Widespread public reaction to the Planning Authority’s approval of the permit for the proposed ‘City Centre’ at St George’s Bay was a mixture of anger and dread. Thousands have opposed the project. But at the core there was also a demoralised and dispirited lack of surprise.
This is because many have closely observed the massive government support for this project from the outset – starting with the questionable land deal, signing over the site to db Group. Was any other outcome ever realistically likely?
The forces behind this project are strong, holding the reins given to them by voters in their hands. They have appropriated not only the horses but the entire lucrative stables for themselves. They will not give them up easily and, in the meantime, they will generate as much money as they can, whatever the wider consequences for others.
Favoured developments in the Paceville area seem destined for approval, despite any impacts they may have on the surroundings or on residents. The consultation process often just feels like a sham, with little effect on the votes of the majority of planning board members. They have other things in mind, and the views of the public are set aside.
Only four board members out of 14 voted against this controversial project – the chairman of the Planning Board, Vincent Cassar; NGO representative Annick Bonello; PN representative Marthese Portelli; and Pembroke mayor Dean Hili. The last three happen to be among the few voting board members not chosen by the government.
All the rest were in favour, despite being presented with many genuine concerns about the potential impact on residents, and policy shortcomings. No arguments or pleading could win over those determined to give the green light to this project.
Besides the visual impact and shadowing, one of the major problems with this development is the huge increase in traffic that it will cause, in an area which is highly congested. St Andrew’s Road is already a bottleneck. And we can expect more traffic chaos on the roads when the new school term starts next week.
There is a general sense of disheartened helplessness when public authorities appear to be serving the powerful few over the interests of the public
The solution for this, we are told, is the construction of an underground road tunnel, leading from St George’s Bay to somewhere in Pembroke – where the emerging cars will presumably exit and squeeze into the growing traffic snarl. So far, not much detail on this tunnel has been provided, but Transport Malta gave their approval based on the idea that it will be constructed at some point in the future.
The timeframe for this tunnel should have been presented long ago, especially if it is a decisive factor in the granting of this mega permit. What will happen if the tunnel is not feasible after all, or if studies show that it is environmentally impossible or unacceptable? Although, in truth, the project raises major concerns with or without a tunnel.
At the hearing on Thursday when the decision in favour of the City Centre project was taken, a ‘letter of commitment’ by the government for the construction of this tunnel was produced, unexpectedly like the joker in a pack of cards. Such a document, with its potential to perhaps sway the vote, should not be presented at the last minute, without proper opportunity to see or discuss it beforehand.
But in any case, this letter did not present a timeframe for this tunnel or any further information. As was rightly said at the meeting, this lack of detail is downright irresponsible on an issue of such major importance.
Frankly, most of this bunch of board members are hardly held up high in public esteem as beacons of good governance. A number of them dumped their environmental credentials long ago and sailed off into the sunset. But a special disappointment was the vote in favour cast by the chairman of the Environment and Resources Authority, Victor Axiak.
It is hard to understand how Axiak did not take on board the same concerns on traffic and lack of a masterplan expressed by the board chairman Vincent Cassar. Aren’t the cumulative impact of over-development, the traffic congestion (with all the air pollution that causes) and the construction of a large road tunnel significant environmental concerns?
Among other planning costs, the board offered a distasteful sweetener to the public, obliging the developer to make a financial contribution to the Arts Council. Malta’s artistic output is to be directly funded by this dubious permit.
A crowd-funded appeal on City Centre (is St George’s Bay a ‘city’?) is in the pipeline, as happened in the case of Townsquare at Tigne in Sliema and which has had a measure of success. But there is a general sense of disheartened helplessness when public authorities appear to be serving the powerful few, over the interests of the public. Every day this 38-storey tower and 17-floor hotel will offer a visible, tangible, landmark reminder of feeling let down.