Sliema local councillor and sociologist Michael Briguglio takes Jacob Borg through the potential pitfalls of opting for high-rise developments in Sliema without all the necessary studies being carried out.

The Prime Minister risks losing the support of Sliema’s floating votes and switchers if two mega high-rise planning applications are approved for the area, Sliema councillor and sociologist Michael Briguglio warned in an interview yesterday.

Sliema residents took to the streets last week to protest against proposals for a 40-storey hotel at Fort Cambridge in Tigné and the 38-storey Townsquare Tower in Qui-Si-Sana.

A court injunction has been filed by the eNGO Flimkien għal Ambjent Aħjar to halt a decisionby the planning authority on the Townsquare project, since claims were made that certain studies related to the development had been withheld or were incomplete.

Dr Briguglio is adamant that if the Planning Authority (PA) gives the go-ahead to these proposals, it will result in Prime Minister Joseph Muscat taking a hit at the polls.

“We are talking about politics here. Development and politics go hand in hand. I know that the Prime Minister is very savvy with popular opinion. I think he knows that if the PA approved the Townsquare and Fort Cambridge developments, he is going to have a big political problem with switchers and floaters.

“I am from Sliema. I am not a Nationalist. I am in the Green Party. I speak to many people in Sliema, and there is a lot of disappointment about how the government is basically not showing enough concern for the environment and for citizens’ basic rights,” Dr Briguglio said.

He flags the lack of proper studies for the Townsquare project as being a point of major concern.

He is critical of the PA for serving as a “rubber stamp” for such developments, rather than doing its job by ensuring that all the necessary studies have taken place.

“Sliema is already very congested. The two high-rise proposals would cause traffic havoc. It seems that the government or PA is justifying the projects simply by saying that Tigné has been designated a high-rise area. The starting point should be analysing whether Tigné or other areas in Malta have the necessary infrastructure to support such high-rise developments.”

How can you accept a planning application without any analysis on sewage and drainage?

“It is a sham that the PA accepts such development applications without the necessary impact assessments having taken place.

“How can you accept a planning application without any analysis on sewage and drainage, and without a social impact study? Does this mean residents do not matter anymore? This is a sham; it goes totally against the concept of holistic and sustainable planning.

“We have an authority that seems to work to facilitate things for developers and which does not question impact assessments. Such studies are not a rubber stamp facility. One should engage with these assessments.”

Without such studies, it was impossible for stakeholders such as the local council to engage with the developers and authorities, Dr Briguglio insisted.

Transport Malta, he added, was not even capable of running a bus lane, as it was often occupied by unauthorised vehicles.

Given this, he questioned whether the transport watchdog was capable of coming up with a holistic plan to ensure Sliema did not end up in “one big traffic jam”.

The Sliema local council is a registered objector to the Townsquare project. The council is adamant that Sliema’s present infrastructure cannot support more cars.

The project’s developers were supposed to present a green transport plan but this has yet to materialise.

“Apart from the environmental issue which is very important and is of utmost concern to me, there is also a question of governance. How can we have an authority which does not do its job?

“We are not asking the authority to do anything beyond its remit, we are basically asking the authority to do its job. If the authority is not capable of doing that, we have a serious governance problem.”

The development application for the Townsquare project was originally filed in 2005. Asked if the local council has engaged with the developer, Dr Briguglio said various meetings had been held over the years.

“Several months ago we asked the developer to hold a meeting with residents so that there can be dialogue on this issue. You cannot force the developers to do something they do not want to do.

“They would be able to explain their plans in the meeting and allow residents to raise their concerns. My gut feeling is that if an open meeting was not held and a social impact assessment was not carried out, the authority and developers know there are many angry and disappointed residents,” Dr Briguglio pointed out.

Transport Malta is not even capable of running a bus lane

He was non-committal when asked about the positive impact of such a project, saying an economic impact assessment should have been carried out in order to answer that question.

He made it clear that he was not against the concept of a free market, wherein entrepreneurs take risks and reap the rewards, but added this must be done in a structured and regulated manner.

“I am in favour of the free market but I am also in favour of government regulation. The government has a responsibility to ensure the market works in a fair and sustainable manner.

“High-rises all over the place without the necessary infrastructure and demand for them can lead to sustainability problems and market problems. Some real estate experts are worried that if Malta is flooded by high-rise projects this could lead to a crash in property prices.

“Just because someone wants to invest in something does not give them an automatic right to do so.

“In the case of high-rises, even though Townsquare is private property, that does not mean that the developer can do what they want. The Tigné policy and floor area policy serve as a facility for high-rises; it does not mean high-rises have to be there.”

Echoing a concern voiced by Finance Minister Edward Scicluna, Dr Briguglio said that by relying solely on mega developments, the country risked putting all its eggs in one basket.

He pointed at the lack of progress made at Manoel Island by developer Midi, which is currently searching for a partner in order to go ahead with the €500 million development.

Manoel Island is a “mess” at the moment and should serve as a warning to other developers.

Dr Briguglio drove home the point that the Sliema local council was not opposing developments just for the sake of it.

“When the local council comments on planning applications, we are not trying to block development, we are trying to ensure that it is as sustainable and Sliema-friendly as possible.”

Though it was already too late for Sliema in certain aspects, the government was still in time to see that proper sustainable planning was placed ahead of the individual interests of big business.

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