Petra Caruana Dingli at The Shift News
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Pandora’s box at St George’s Bay

Opposition to the proposed City Centre by DB Group at St George’s Bay shows no signs of letting up. It is not easy to battle against such a big project.

They will build it anyway in the end, is the dejected thought. But experience does show that it is always well worth a try. The battle is not over until the project is built. It does not exist until it is actually there.

The proposal to build villas all over one side of the ridge at Ta’ Cenc in Gozo is a case in point. Objectors always had a sinking feeling, understandably, that eventually, it would happen all the same. Big business, and influence in the right places, tends to win.

Yet over two decades after the application was first submitted in 1996, it still has not materialised. The requested permit is not in hand. That is a 23-year success story, and still counting, for those who have struggled to preserve the beautiful, open spaces of Ta’ Cenc.

In the meantime, some of the land at Ta’ Cenc has been designated as a Natura 2000 site and is protected by EU legislation. The Structure Plan, which mentioned Ta’ Cenc and was waved around as a trump card by the developers, has expired. In 2015 it was replaced by a strategic plan (the SPED) which does not include it.

As a result, the project’s chances of approval are severely diminished. Permits are granted on existing policies, not former ones. Never say never, mind you, but the odds are certainly different to those of, say, 10 years ago.

Delays can also affect other factors besides plans and policies. An economic downturn, or movement in the property market, can transform the scene. Or perhaps the changing fate and fortunes of a project’s investors.

The Mistra Village project at St Paul’s Bay and the Metropolis Tower in Gzira obtained their respective permits some years ago but they have not yet been constructed. In both cases, premature demolition of the buildings has created a mess of wasteland for everyone else to live with. An unsightly gaping hole in the ground at Gzira has long replaced the Mira Motors Building, which could have merited scheduling.

Civil society’s concerns and protests about both the Town Square project in Sliema and the university at Zonqor led to the downscaling of these projects. The Zonqor project has not started, as things have apparently not turned out as planned on that.

There are still reasons why the DB City Centre project might not happen as quickly as the developers hope. The permit was revoked by the court a month ago due to the conflict of interest of Planning Board member Matthew Pace, who voted in favour of it. The court noted that Pace potentially stood to benefit from the project due to his interest in the real estate company Remax, which was already advertising it before the permit was granted.

DB Group has applied for a new permit, and the company has also threatened to sue the Planning Authority for damages due to the delay. This will of course pile pressure on the Authority.

But the Planning Authority’s pressures do not stop there. Can the same Planning Board members attend another hearing and take a new vote on what is essentially the same project, only months later? The Board members have already all expressed themselves on this proposal (one even having been flown over from Sicily, on a private jet, just to be present for the vote last September).

Will their position at this hearing now be tenable? A new application requires a new process, with another hearing. For the hearing to be fair to all sides, including the crowds of people who are against this project, decision-makers should be impartial when the case is made before them at the sitting. They should not have firmly expressed their voting position in public before they have heard all sides.

Otherwise, the entire hearing would surely be a sham. But if not this Board, then who could possibly decide on this permit?

Even if this matter is resolved, the DB case has opened Pandora’s box. The status of the development permit for Manoel Island has now also been flagged by environmental activists, due to a similar concern about conflict of interest involving the same Board member.

The suitability of a real estate agency owner on the Planning Board is questionable in the first place. This line of work partly depends upon new properties coming on the market. Doesn’t this, in many cases, present an inbuilt vested interest?

Objections are being gathered by civil society to counteract the renewed permit application by DB Group for their City Centre. The developers are now attempting, however, to split the excavation from the construction phase, as a stand-alone permit.

As NGOs and others have already pointed out, this would evade a holistic evaluation of the full impacts of the development. But an excavation permit would also make it possible, as at the Metropolis and Mistra sites, to immediately create another wasteland – but before a full development permit is granted. And there may still be some way to go on that.

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