EDITORIAL | Sunday, 26 August 2007

Stop taking developers for a ride

As was perhaps predictable, the furore surrounding last Tuesday’s stormy meeting about the proposed Ta’ Cenc project served also to deflect attention from the real issues at stake.
The meeting ended in chaos, insults and threats of physical violence, with the result that the police had to intervene. Consequently, the many serious points raised during the public hearing were quickly drowned in a torrent of abuse.
After the MEPA public hearing last Tuesday, much of the debate was dominated by two points raised by Real Finanz director, Victor Borg.
The first was his tongue in cheek suggestion that the development permit for 33 villas overlooking Mgarr ix-Xini would have been instantly granted, had he bribed members of parliament with half a villa each. Coming as it does after a spate of revelations in which ministers have found themselves embroiled in all manner of scandal, the jibe was evidently well-rehearsed. The abject failure of Parliament to defend itself from these accusations speaks volumes on the state of local politics. Clearly, Borg’s cynical observation that all 65 members are somehow corruptible appears to have been accepted by the entire country: including the 65 MPs themselves. Victor Borg has effectively made a total mockery of the entire Maltese political system.
However it would be facile to attach too much importance to what was, at the end of the day, a mischievous passing remark. It would also detract attention from a second, infinitely more serious point raised during the public hearing.
For apart from implying the corruptibility of Maltese politicians, Victor Borg also claimed that he had been given assurances, during previous meetings with MEPA officials, that the Ta’ Cenc project would eventually be approved. Borg even produced documentation to back his claim, suggesting that he was egged on by MEPA to invest in reports after reports, as well as an expensive impact assessment, for a project which flies in the face of Malta’s Structure Plan.
Evidence includes a letter sent by architect Martin Xuereb on 4 March 2004, referring to a meeting held at MEPA’s offices on 27 February 2004, attended by MEPA officials Stephen Farrugia and Rachel Vella and developers Victor Borg and Saviour Cremona. The letter, referring to the construction of 59 villas at Mgarr ix-Xini in Borg’s original proposal, states that the authority was “in agreement” and considered the proposal “acceptable”. Another letter dated 8 March 2005 referred to the boundaries agreed upon in August 2003. These included the site overlooking Mgarr ix-Xini. The letter states that after the MEPA Board was shown the proposals “the indications were that the project was broadly speaking in line with the Structure Plan”.
Yet another letter sent by the developers to the MEPA director of planning back in September 2002 referred to discussions with MEPA in which “understandings” were reached that “tourism development includes the country houses area overlooking Mgarr ix-Xini, a golf course, a heritage park and an additional hotel.”
More worryingly still, MEPA later instructed Victor Borg to remove any reference to this correspondence, arguing that the letters in question did not accurately reflect the nature of these meetings. But what, exactly, were these “understandings”? What agreements were reached between the planning authority and the developers regarding the fate of Mgarr ix-Xini? MEPA has not to date provided satisfactory answers to these questions. The implications are more serious than Borg’s corruptibility jibe, and deserve to be investigated in full.
On another level, there seems be to absolute confusion regarding the role and function of MEPA in these cases. One of the arguments being churned out in favour of the project is the creation of employment on the island of Gozo. It is an argument which should be swept aside at this stage of evaluation, for the simple reason that MEPA is not the authority concerned with the creation of employment, and its remit here is to take a decision over the environmental and planning dimensions of Borg’s proposal in terms of Maltese law. How many people Borg plans to employ – something which has not yet been declared – is inconsequential to the decision MEPA will ultimately have to take over this project.
Coupled with Borg’s insinuations that MEPA has overstepped its remit by reaching pre-emptive agreements with developers, we seem to be dealing with a situation where Maltese law – in this case, the Structure Plan – is something that can be circumvented according to certain criteria… some of which have nothing whatsoever to do with environmental issues. This cannot bode well for the future of Malta’s environment.

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