The government instructed the planning authority to designate Mrieħel as a high-rise area after the close of public consultation, new evidence shows.

Mrieħel was not listed as such an area when the policy on tall buildings was submitted for public consultation in November 2013 but was later included in the final version.

Environmentalists say this could represent a breach of EU and national law, as the public was not given the opportunity to object.

The planning authority is also set up to be an autonomous body making decisions independent of the government.

Minutes of a private meeting of the Planning Authority board on March 20, 2014 – two months after the close of public consultation on the Floor Area Ratio Policy – show that in a submission to the authority, the government specifically requested that Mrieħel be included in the policy.

The policy allows proposals for tall buildings to be considered only if they are in identified appropriate locations.

According to the board minutes, seen by this newspaper, the government made three submissions, reported by executive chairman Johann Buttigieg.

One of them read simply: “Appropriate locations for tall buildings: Add Mrieħel.” Mr Buttigieg explained that the intention was “to create a strategic employment node replacing the industrial uses by offices”, the minutes show.

Board member Victor Axiak (now chairman of the Environment and Resources Authority) suggested that the reason for including Mrieħel should be included in the policy wording, while Joseph Scalpello suggested adding the words “due to its potential as a business hub”.

There does not appear to have been any further discussion on the subject during the meeting. The final policy was approved in May 2014.

A request for further details sent to the PA was met with a one-line response which failed to address the questions posed. The PA spokesman said: “Kindly note that this case is still sub judice following the request of a warrant of prohibition injunction.”

This newspaper asked which government department or individual made the submission and when it was received. Also asked was whether it was standard practice for government to make submissions on policy after the close of public consultation.

The issue is linked to a controversial planning application by Tumas and Gasan Holdings to build four towers in the limits of the Mrieħel industrial estate.

The project is recommended for approval by the PA case officer. However, NGOs have argued that approval would be premature without an encompassing plan for high-rise buildings and risks putting a heavy burden on already-strained infrastructure and negatively impacting long-distance views.

They claim that the inclusion of Mrieħel in the high-rise policy, allowing the application to proceed, was done “by stealth”. An injunction against the application being heard, on the basis of this and other issues, has since been provisionally upheld by the court.

Earlier this week, environment NGOs Din l-Art Ħelwa, Flimkien Għal Ambjent Aħjar and Friends of the Earth wrote to the Prime Minister asking him to publicly explain the steps that led to the inclusion, and why the decision was taken behind closed doors.

“The PA is obliged by its own law, as well as by the Aarhus Convention, to consult the public ‘early in an environmental decision-making procedure, and in an adequate, timely and effective manner’ on the substance of any new planning policy early in the process,” the NGOs wrote.

“It is also obliged to ‘ensure that in the decision due account is taken of the outcome of the public participation.  These requirements were blatantly ignored in the case of Mrieħel.”

The Sunday Times of Malta also reported that the PA had ignored concerns raised by MP Marlene Farrugia in Parliament over the inclusion of Mrieħel.

Dr Farrugia had called for a debate in the parliamentary environment committee on whether the inclusion of Mrieħel after the end of the consultation period in 2014 was a violation of EU procedure. 

The PA, however, answered a request by the committee for a response by saying only that it was not aware which EU procedure was being referred to.

Dr Farrugia said the PA response had ignored the issues and that she had felt she was wasting her time.

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