"Our environment is too small to aff-ord to suffer any more mi-stakes than we have already committed in the past, sometimes even in the name of tourism and progress." This was not stated by AD chairman Michael Briguglio but by Parliamentary Secretary Mario de Marco with reference to the pending Ħondoq ir-Rummien Mepa application (The Sunday Times, May 30).
In considering large projects for development permission, the Malta Environment and Planning Authority is not considering environmental and social impacts adequately, opting instead to focus on perceived short-term economic gains. Unfortunately, the paths leading to decisions are guided by experts who should know better.
Some time ago, Mepa approved the extension of the Malta Free-port. In the process, it ignored that such an extension gobbled up the existing buffer zone established way back in 1995. The end result will be a Freeport operating area that is much closer to the Birżebbuġa residential area. The Freeport as it is operating already severely impacts the daily lives of the Birżebbuġa residents. Making things worse will only raise tensions and the loss of at least part of the accumulated social capital of the locality. No amount of mitigation will ever restore what is being lost with Mepa's blessings.
In deciding on the matter, Mepa has been misguided by an EIA process, which, being financed by the developer, had an interest to shift attention on the over-emphasised perceived economic gains, simultaneously downplaying social and environmental impacts.
The Ħondoq ir-Rummien project seems to be the next issue which further highlights the developing tensions between the residential community and those interested in making a fast buck. The proposal, which involves substantial rock excavation, aims to develop a 170-room hotel, 25 villas, 60 self-catering apartments, 200 residences, parking space and a 150-berth yacht marina.
This proposed development will squeeze out the current uses at Ħondoq ir-Rummien. It will conflict with the public recreational uses the Gozitans and Maltese alike make of the area.
Jeremy Boissevain, in a report commissioned by the Qala local council, has highlighted that the massive scale of the project will practically double the Qala population. The local community has not accepted the proposed intrusion into their lives, which the proposed project suggests. As evidenced by the local referendum held in Qala some years back, the community does not consider the economic aspect on its own. Rather, it should be weighed and compared to the environmental and social impacts it will necessarily generate.
The social and environmental externalities of the project are being repeatedly downplayed by those who want to cash in on the economic benefits such a project will undoubtedly generate for the few. After having cashed in the benefits of property speculation aimed at a 70 per cent foreigner occupancy target, they will then leave the community to carry the burdens and pay the costs, deprived of basic facilities which, to date, have been much used by the public.
Mepa has yet to decide on this project and there is no way of knowing the direction such a decision would take. It is however logical to assume that the line of reasoning the current Mepa board has applied in other cases is of relevance. Hence, the validity of Dr de Marco's warning on the need to ensure that past mistakes are not repeated, not even on behalf of "tourism and progress".
The government is aware that, to date, it has given conflicting signals. Very late in the day, it is realising that it cannot run with the proverbial hares while simultaneously hunting with the hounds. The current state of affairs is the direct result of the ambivalent attitude to environmental issues by politicians from the major parties which have developed the skill of quickly switching mode depending on their audience.
The causes are various.
AD is on record as pointing to two immediate solutions: firstly regulating the funding of political parties and, secondly, for the government to share with the community the process of appointing the Mepa decision-makers, by having the appointees subjected to a public hearing prior to their being appointed.
The major political parties are hostage to the construction industry. This is also evident by the reluctance of Parliament to legislate on party political funding. The parliamentary select committee appointed two years ago has, to date, been ineffective in this respect. Likewise, the Mepa reform process will result in a wasted opportunity, as while it will tinker with a number of issues, it will retain the most essential matters requiring re-form untouched.
It is one thing to speak on past mistakes and quite another to move up the learning curve. Past mistakes will most probably be reflected in present-day decisions. At least for the time being.
I hope that I will be proven wrong.
The author, an architect and civil engineer, is the spokesman on sustainable development and local government of Alternattiva Demokratika - the Green party in Malta.
Independent journalism costs money. Support Times of Malta for the price of a coffee.Support Us