The size and safety of a Chinese embassy, planned on a 19,000 square metre plot in Pembroke that is close to a residential area and schools, has been questioned by residents and the parents of children attending the schools in the vicinity.
The Chinese government had purchased the land from the Maltese government for €7.8 million in 2015 after the decision was approved by both sides of parliament.
The Chinese Ambassador had first approached the Nationalist administration about the desired land back in 2007, where he reportedly requested a development on 10,000 square metres of land. Since then, the size has almost doubled, to 19,000 square metres in 2015. It is important to note that the site had been earmarked for development for many years before that, and it was under the PN that the plans shifted to specifically allow the construction of an embassy. However, the exact time in which the size increased drastically is unclear.
Minister Michael Falzon, who was responsible for the Lands Authority at the time, has not replied to questions on the drastic increase.
The site is located behind St Catherine’s school on Suffolk Street, and next to Australia Hall, which the Labour Party appropriated soon after it was elected to govern in 2013. St.Michael School is also located in close quarters to the site.
A resident and parent whose child is a student at St. Catherine’s school voiced his concern about the plans for the new embassy, arguing that besides the development resulting in fewer green spaces in the area and the school’s exposure to the impact of construction for a prolonged period, he also feared the security threat that comes about with the presence of an embassy.
“The proximity of an embassy next to a school comes with a security threat, despite the fact that Malta may be more low risk than other countries,” he told The Shift.
Parents have expressed their concerns to the school that has said it was still considering its course of action. Rita Zammit, a Pembroke resident who is active in the fight to retain the town’s green spaces, also drew attention to concerns.
“As we all know, the world is not a safe place and we do not know what frictions there might be in the future. Having an embassy on the site would be dangerous considering there is a huge amount of schools in the area, one of them in front and the other on the back of the embassy,” she said.
This argument was reiterated by other residents who filed objections with the Planning Authority – there were 540 objections at the time of writing.
The uptake of land planned to be used by the embassy was also questioned by the petitioners, who asked why the development needed to be so big in the first place, a dominating size in comparison with the current Chinese Embassy in St Julian’s.
“Why does an embassy need around 20,000 square metres of virgin land? This embassy will be for one country,” an objector told the Planning Authority. Others pointed out that are alternative sites which are currently disused and could be used for such a purpose.
Besides size and safety, other cause for concern includes traffic, congestion, and the loss of more agricultural land. This further angered Pembroke residents, who have already been caught in a struggle on the controversial high rise project by Silvio Debono.
Zammit argued that the area is a recreational area for residents of Pembroke, as well as visitors from all over the island, a place where one could “walk, relax and enjoy our natural environment”.
“There is no where else to go, most especially for residents of St. Julians, Swieqi, Sliema, Gzira and San Gwann areas,” she noted, asking why it should be taken away when many residential areas are already deprived of green areas and when such an environment is necessary for one’s well-being. These sentiments were echoed by many.
The planned site for the embassy also lies at a mere distance of 280 metres from a Special Area of Conservation.
“For every open space we have, we are getting some sort of development,” Luana Caruana told The Shift. She grew up in the area, and spoke of seeing hedgehogs, Aleppo Pines, and other protected flora and fauna on the site. She is worried about what will become of them.
Caruana launched a petition against the embassy being built, which has garnered approximately 2,500 signatures at the time of writing.
Citizens can file an objection against the development until Wednesday, 29 April.