Over the past few years, residents and environmental NGOs have ramped up the pressure on the Planning Authority to dismiss applications that contravene planning laws, threaten urban and rural environments and risk devastating communities.
In the past four months alone there have been at least 11 different projects that attracted significant amounts of objections, with many of the cases being objected to sometimes taking years to resolve. A junction in Burmarrad, yet another LIDL in Żebbuġ and a planning control application in Rabat, Gozo that sought to open up a quiet street to development are just a few that have grabbed people’s attention since the start of the year.
Yet despite the increased efforts and organisation of both residents and NGOs in opposing projects in their localities, there has been no discernible change in the way some developers openly flout regulations or use the PA’s loopholes to find ways to bypass the rules.
The consistent stream of applications objected to by the public, by local council representatives and by organisations seeking to protect public spaces from overdevelopment is, more often than not, being ignored by the authorities. The three major projects detailed below are some of the most controversial to have been approved, in the process of being approved, or have been almost completed, despite significant and widespread public opposition.
The Central Link saga
One of the biggest flashpoints for the environmental lobby in Malta was the Central Link project, which is set to be completed by October, according to transport minister Ian Borg. The project cost taxpayers €55 million, and led to the uprooting of around 500 trees as well as the loss of 48,000sqm of arable land.
The project was first flagged in October 2017 when farmers were served with notices warning them of the uptake of their land. While Infrastructure Malta went on a PR blitz to persuade voters of the benefits of the project, the agency had kept the details of studies like the cost-benefit analysis of the project under wraps, divulging specific conclusions without showcasing the methodology.
Borg had also claimed that the project did not require a traffic impact assessment to be carried out, even though the project’s central claim being that traffic times in the area would be cut down by 50%.
In spite of a protest which attracted over 1,000 people, the project was approved in July 2019. A lengthy legal battle in which objectors had raised €20,000 to appeal the green light given to the project ended in failure the following year after both the Environment Planning Review Tribunal and the Court of Appeal threw out their arguments against the project.
The Court of Appeal had not even been given time to reach its conclusions before works on the project had commenced. While the court had reached its conclusions in February of last year, works had already commenced by January, effectively turning Central Link into a fait accompli.
DB Group’s Pembroke towers
After the land on which the former Institute of Tourism Studies stood was given to DB Group in a controversial, 99-year concession in February 2017 for just €15 million, Pembroke’s residents and environmental activists took to the streets to protest the concession which was to lead to the building of a 37-storey tower and a 17-storey hotel.
The project, spread out over 24,000sqm of prime public land, sparked immediate controversy not just for the massive scale of the project and the encroaching commercialisation on the doorsteps of a predominantly residential area, but also because estate agents had begun selling apartments before any kind of permits had been issued by the Planning Authority.
In a heated, six-hour sitting in September 2018, the Planning Authority board approved DB’s application, with ten members voting in favour and four voting against, in spite of 4,500 objections being filed by the public and the cumulative pressure created by the local councils of Pembroke, St Julian’s and Swieqi.
When objectors filed an appeal at the Environment Planning and Review Tribunal, the appeal was upheld and the project sent back to the drawing board following revelations of the conflict of interest held by Planning Authority board member Matthew Pace, who was also serving as a franchisee for real estate agency Remax which was also involved in selling off apartments for the project.
Undeterred by the public’s resistance to the project, DB Group revised its plans and engaged in a PR blitz to double down on its efforts to develop the site. Unfazed by the group’s PR and re-scaled plans, opposition to the project has continued, with activists raising another €20,000 to fight the second version of the project, which was also approved by the Planning Authority board after nearly half of the board members recused themselves from taking a decision at the last minute.
Plans for a 125-apartment block just 300 metres away from the Gozitan coastline in Sannat have also been met with opposition from environmental NGOs. Gozo in particular is currently besieged with mega planning projects, and its mayors, now growing increasingly worried about overdevelopment on the island, have now joined forces in a bid to rein in the rampant development.
One of the key driving forces behind development in Gozo is construction tycoon Joseph Portelli, who reportedly split his 125-apartment block in Sannat between three of his associates to circumvent environmental impact assessments for the permits.
Environmental NGO Moviment Graffitti noted that two of the three permits that were filed, one of which was approved before anybody had time to object, would also be jutting out onto ODZ land, as well as despoiling the character of the village in general.
In spite of the objections that were raised by the Environment and Resources Authority as well as Graffitti, including the violation of building height limitations and threats to the local flora and fauna, the Environment Planning and Review tribunal allowed works to commence on one of the applications while appeals were being heard, ignoring also a stop-works request filed by NGO Din L-Art Ħelwa.
The next sitting of this appeal is to be heard on 28 September. In the mean time, Graffitti spoke of how the “tried-and-tested tactics” being employed by Portelli and his associates were likely going to lead to the project being finished before the next sitting is even heard.