I want to tell you a story about momentous decisions, moral men and many hats. During the previous week’s public hearing about the Townsquare application for a monstrous tower, Planning Authority board member Timothy Gambin seemed to be particularly irate.
At one point he lashed out furiously at NGOs, which I was representing, for filing a judicial protest enjoining board members to observe the law.
This simple request for board members to postpone deciding the application until all the studies required by law were produced, brought about a frenzied reaction from Gambin. NGOs were “legally correct but morally despicable, morally despicable, morally despicable,” he thundered.
I don’t feel I should comment on this, but I will simply state the facts. Prior to the hearing, the chairman of the Environment and Resources Authority, Prof. Victor Axiaq, was indisposed and realised he could not attend the hearings. He passed on a detailed set of observations about the high-rise projects that were being discussed on the day. Axiak passed on these written conclusions to his morally virtuous fellow board member Gambin.
The public hearing held in the morning was for the decision about the application for four high-rise towers in Mrieħel – a project proposed by the Gasan-Tumas group. Despite the fact that the location of Mrieħel had been slipped in by the government by stealth as being appropriate for high-rise buildings, I could sense the way things were going. Objectors had as much chance as a turkey before Christmas. Not even the most solidly-backed objections were going to sway that board. Funny photomontages with semi-invisible towers did not raise any eyebrows.
The mayor of Birkirkara – the locality which would suffer some of the traffic spill-over from the Mrieħel project – had a vote. He could also voice his concerns about the project. He had none, and voted in favour of the project. His son – the Planning Authority CEO – was seated with other board members a few centimetres away. He could not vote, but he assured the other board members that the applicable policy had been observed.
Diverting our attention from this father-and-son tableau, Gambin read out Axiak’s comments about the Mrieħel project. Soon after, the project was approved with an overwhelming 10 members in favour and two against.
The marathon sitting extended into the afternoon. Now we were discussing the 38-storey behemoth that would sit atop that congested lick of land that is the Tigné peninsula. The applicant is Gasan.
We learnt that this man-made mountain would cast minimal shadows, be surrounded by wide leafy avenues where birds would chirp and children play
On and on the developers’ consultants went. We learnt that this man-made mountain would cast minimal shadows, be surrounded by wide leafy avenues where birds would chirp and children play. Traffic? Well, there would be a daily increase of over 5,000 cars, but they would be diverted to the narrow roads of the residential heart of the peninsula and disappear or perhaps fall down a pothole. In any case, Transport Malta was going to throw in some road junctions and then we’d play it by ear.
The project would take some five years to complete, and the strictly scientific mitigation measure of residents keeping their windows closed for all this time, was proposed. No matter – the developer was kindly forwarding the sum of €5,000 annually for five years for a green travel plan or a similar noble cause. All present nearly broke out in a chorus of “Hey Big Spender”.
Gambin sat by silently. He did not read out Axiaq’s observations. We still do not know whether these included a warning about the cumulative effects of the many towers close by. When Sliema local councillor Paul Radmilli posed a question about traffic, Gambin roared. Later, he roared again, about moral despicability. Then he voted for the project – which was approved by a narrow 7-6 margin.
We went away humbled by the dressing down about moral despicability. Then we went home and googled the name of our morality lecturer. An interesting article popped up. It relates to the new power station to be built in Marsaxlokk and the gas tanker used for the transportation and storage of gas. The consortium chosen by the government for this project was the Electrogas consortium, which includes the Gasan Group and the Tumas Group.
Two of the consultants chosen to carry out the Environmental Impact Assessment for the Electrogas consortium were biologist and marine pollution expert Axiaq and underwater archaeology expert Gambin. Now I am convinced that both were chosen for their expertise and experience in their respective fields and because we do not have many local professionals of their calibre.
However, what we have here is a situation where two experts first provide their services to a Gasan-Tumas consortium and (presumably) get paid for it, then whip off their consultants’ hats and vote for or against a Gasan-Tumas project without this being made clear to the public. It’s as if I had to receive professional fees from a client, then put on judge’s robes and decide upon a case in which he is involved.
No doubt we will hear that the consultancy was carried out a couple of years back, that it was public knowledge and that all was instantly forgotten, that the Gasan-Tumas applications were looked at with fresh eyes, and that Gambin forgot to read Axiaq’s comments because of the utter moral despicability of the NGO objectors before him.
I wouldn’t know about moral despicability. What I do know is conflict of interest, undeclared interests and people’s ability to judge. Over to you, readers.
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