Last April I wrote that the support of any of the two major political parties – or elements within them – to the environmental movement usually aid the chances of victory against development proposals (April 9). I added that even though the Planning Authority under successive governments has tended to favour big developers, one cannot simply conclude that this is a one-way process. The environment is political, and different outcomes can result.
The Townsquare decision last Thursday is a case in point. The Planning Authority had originally approved a massive development comprising a 38-storey tower through a one-person board majority. Opponents included PA chairman Vince Cassar, the Sliema local council representative and the Environment Resources Authority (ERA), whose representative could not attend the board meeting due to illness and whose vote could not be registered.
Subsequently the local council, ERA and environmental NGOs Din l-Art Ħelwa, Flimkien għall-Ambjent Aħjar, the Ramblers Association and the Qui-si-Sana & Tignè Residents Association appealed against the decision, and their position was vindicated by the review tribunal.
The proposal has been sent back to the drawing board and new plans must be in line with the Floor Area Ratio policy and should have proper environmental, social and traffic impact assessments.
On a personal note I am pleased that my contribution to this 15-year-old struggle has borne fruit. A broad alliance was constructed. Initially, it involved residents, environmentalists and greens but it eventually had the support of the Sliema local council and the Nationalist Party. Once again, it is clear that successful environmental politics requires wide coalitions and not sectarian schisms.
I only hope that the developers at Gasan conduct a holistic exercise in community involvement before presenting their new plans. This requires genuine and ongoing dialogue with affected stakeholders.
In the meantime, another tower proposal just up the road in Sliema is being considered by the PA: the Fort Cambridge 40-storey hotel.
Successful environmental politics requires wide coalitions and not sectarian schisms
The proposal plans to build this skyscraper on the officers’ mess, which has been considered for scheduling by the PA through its internal waiting list for years. In 2015, the Sliema local council had also written to the PA to protect this building.
Nine years earlier, the PA’s development brief for the site had described this building as having ‘landmark’ status, which should be retained due to its historical and architectural importance, and as a buffer between new higher development on the site and the surrounding residential blocks.
The brief had also clearly stated that no additional floors over the third floor will be allowed over this building.
Enter the Labour government in 2013 and a new high-rise policy was approved a year later. In practice, hotel proposals have no height limit and prior development briefs can be overruled. But the scheduling of properties can stop such development, and maybe this is why the PA has not yet decided whether to schedule the officers’ mess.
In the meantime, it is imperative that the PA takes a close look at what is being proposed at Fort Cambridge. The models presented in the developer’s environment impact assessment show that Tignè Street down the road will be in perpetual darkness.
Besides, there are no photomontages for streets near the development and no mitigation measures against various adverse impacts have been proposed.
The traffic impact assessment looks like a quick job as it neither includes hourly flows of cars nor does it offer management plans with respect to overcapacity and spillover effects. Dust, sewage and pollution impact assessments are missing, as is a social impact assessment (SIA).
As regards the latter, the International Association for Impact Assessment suggests that an SIA is the process of analysing, monitoring and managing the intended and unintended social consequences, both positive and negative, of planned interventions and any social change processes invoked by those interventions. This should be an ongoing peer-reviewed process, and not a quick-fix rubberstamping exercise.
Finally, an expert in the field recently told me that the proposed plans for the Fort Cambridge high-rise are more in synch with apartment designs than those of hotels. Could the developers be exploiting the hotel policy so as to revert to apartments if and after the hotel development is approved?