The environment impact assessment for the planned skyscraper in Sliema was described as a “sham” by the chairman of the Environment and Resources Authority, Victor Axiak.

The damning description was contained in a memo sent to a member of the Planning Authority board and intended to be read out during the hearing on the Townsquare project. However, the memo never saw the light of day.

Its contents have been the subject of intense interest ever since the PA hearing on the project took place, which Prof. Axiak did not attend due to illness. At the
August 4 hearing, the PA granted a permit for the construction of a 38-floor skyscraper in Tigné, by a narrow seven votes in favour and six against.

Prof. Axiak missed the crucial vote due to illness.Prof. Axiak missed the crucial vote due to illness.

Prof. Axiak’s missing vote is therefore being viewed as critical since – had he voted against – it could have swayed the result, especially now that his opinion on the environment impact assessment has emerged.

Several sources have confirmed that his memo spoke of the EIA as being a sham.
Dr Gambin chose not read out Prof. Axiak’s observations on the project during the hearing, which has led to a swell of criticism.

When contacted by the Sunday Times of Malta, Dr Gambin insisted he would not comment.

“Write what you like,” he said. He refused to discuss anything to do with the project.

Prof. Axiak defended his decision to hand the memo outlining his thoughts only to Dr Gambin, saying in a statement he did it to avoid exerting “unjust and unfair” pressure on other PA board members.

“With hindsight, I do not expect others to share this view, but that is not my problem,” Prof. Axiak wrote, adding that he had full faith in the integrity of all PA board members. He said that “well before this matter erupted”, he had submitted a request asking to nominate a proxy to the board when members could not attend.

He said the PA board chairman, board secretary and Environment Minister had been informed on August 2 he would not be present at the hearings on the Sliema and Mrieħel high-rise projects, which took place the day he was discharged from hospital with instructions to rest for at least two weeks.

Prof. Axiak has refused to reveal the contents of the memo or say how he might have voted, saying the ERA has yet to decide whether to appeal the PA’s decision to approve the two developments. He distributed a copy of the memo to the ERA board after the hearing.

Timmy Gambin refused to discuss the project.Timmy Gambin refused to discuss the project.

Last week, the ERA told this newspaper that it “did not envisage appealing the PA decisions on the Mrieħel and Sliema highrises”. It now seems to be reconsidering that stand.

Meanwhile, it has been pointed out that both Prof. Axiak and Dr Gambin are consultants in the environment impact assessment for Electrogas on the new power plant. This raises the possibility of a conflict of interest, since the Gasan Group is part of the Electrogas consortium and also the applicant for the Tigné tower.

Biologist and marine pollution expert Prof. Axiak and underwater archaeology expert Dr Gambin are eminent in their field. However, environmentalists and legal and planning experts have told this newspaper that the potential conflict of interest should have been declared at the hearing.

The ERA is being urged to appeal the PA’s decision to grant the Townsquare permit, with the Sliema local council, the Church Environment Commission and the Democratic Party all issuing statements to this effect.

Meanwhile, the Democratic Party and the Civil Society Network have urged Prof. Axiak to make his memo public. They argue that the PA’s decision to approve skyscraper plans was made despite the absence of a master plan on high-rise development.

The Nationalist Party has made a similar call, also expressing concern that Prof. Axiak’s request for a substitute to be nominated in his absence was not addressed. The party was critical of Environment Minister José Herrera for not taking action.