The Mosta trees saga can now comfortably be filed under the “debacles” tab of Labour’s third stint in government. Ten years after a roaring election to power, Labour’s administration is a roadshow of how to lose touch with the grassroots.
Last week, Mosta residents woke up to find a contractor butchering trees close to the iconic Rotunda. Those trees, which have stood the test of time and served as a landmark for the community, were condemned to exile by mayor Chris Grech and the entirety of the council in a hastily taken decision greenlighted by the Environmental and Resources Authority.
A Times of Malta fact check effectively rubbished the ERA’s assertion that the trees were invasive; they are indeed protected by the law. The authority officials issuing the permit should be investigated for allowing the council and its contractor to breach the law.
Grech held out for a day of protests until the prime minister put the brakes on the council’s intentions. Eventually, the mayor had no choice but to back down, and the trees were effectively saved by residents and activists.
What happened in Mosta is not just an environmental disaster, but an attack on the space of its community, motivated by private interest
The police’s heavy-handed treatment of Graffitti’s Andre Callus was another show of nervousness, in which law and order was reminded of its tendency to cower to power, while needlessly overreacting with those who are on the right side of the law.
It is also symptomatic of how certain misdeeds – carried out by government agencies or developers – are expected to go ahead nonetheless, with the police having to intervene in favour of disorder.
It also seems that Labour is, to put it mildly, incoherent on how to present its vision to the masses. Prior to the election, Labour appropriated the term “quality of life” from the very strand of civil society protesting in Mosta, and transformed it into an electoral slogan.
An exorbitant €700m budget was allocated to Project Green, yet another government agency led by a CEO without any environmental credentials. This is increasingly looking like a vehicle for contractors to retain their profits as the focus shifts from the equally aggressive road-building spree of the last year to the new buzzword of “open spaces”.
At the time of writing, there are plans for swathes of arable land to be taken up in Nigret, an ODZ tarmac plant in Mqabba, and scores of other applications for construction virtually everywhere. The government is pitching in to the perpetual gridlock with its own projects; and yet, with the exception of a couple of gardens restored and gentrified to boredom, there has been little in the way of open spaces.
Were we to compare the land gained in public spaces since the election to that lost to development, the proportion would result in a percentage figure lower than Miriam Dalli’s polling. The environment minister has come short on the promise of open spaces, especially since Enemalta gave the PA’s blessing for an eight-storey development in Qajjenza, fronted by a Malta Developers Association board member. At the same time, the MDA receives €210,000 in a renewables deal, from a plant built on public land. Meanwhile, the government has quietly extended development permits by three years effectively proving that it lies when it tells the electorate it intends to shift its economic model away from construction.
Labour’s arrogance will be its downfall: not only has the party reneged its electoral promises, but it seems busier servicing the development lobby than protecting the electorate from overdevelopment and its effects: noise, ugliness, congestion, and ill-health, among others.
Trees tend to bring a sense of well-being; the only time Labour has intervened to save them is months before an uneasy election. What happened in Mosta is not just an environmental disaster, but an attack on the space of its community, motivated by private interest.