The Manoel Island project has reached the stage of incredible irony and short-sightedness.

While Infrastructure Minister Ian Borg claims to “introduce recreational areas for families and rehabilitate historic sites” on the Marsa side of the Grand Harbour, his government is allowing the exact opposite, the destruction of open areas and heritage on the other side of Valletta, at the historic green gem of Manoel Island.

Britain has suffered the delisting of the Liverpool waterfront as a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to development “detrimental to the site’s authenticity and integrity”. Anyone thinking that a similar delisting could not happen to Valletta is just sticking their head in the sand since Britain has narrowly avoided the unthinkable delisting of Stonehenge prompted by plans to pass a road tunnel near its premier heritage site.

Over to Malta, in 2009, UNESCO demanded that Malta “establish a declared buffer zone with height controls around the property [Valletta] as a means of protecting the skyline configuration of the city and prepare a ‘Views and Vistas Analysis’ from strategic points within and outside the property”.

UNESCO also stipulated: “The adequate implementation of the Management Plan requires clear policies on height controls to protect the city’s skyline and streetscapes, on the extent of the control area for building heights and on view sheds outside the walled city.”

Predictably, Malta ignored UNESCO’s 2010 deadline.

Furthermore, Malta has submitted the network of ‘Knights’ Fortifications around the Harbours of Malta’ as a tentative UNESCO World Heritage Site.

This ring of fortifications includes Manoel Island, which will be changed forever by the construction of several six-storey apartment blocks as well as by an extra storey to be built on the historic Lazzaretto.

As a final irony, just as the Maltese authorities are boasting of Malta’s recent ratification of the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage, committing us to a set of rules and regulations, the Planning Authority is about to approve the obliteration of ancient Roman structures that lie on the Manoel Island seabed.

We urge the government to take a decisive step to correct the error of the past and return Manoel Island to public ownership- Astrid Vella

However, all is not lost as there is a unique chance to remedy an error committed by another administration over 20 years ago.

In June 2000, the government signed a public deed of emphyteusis handing over Tigné Point and Manoel Island to MIDI plc for the development of a tourist and yachting centre.

The contract stipulated a March 31, 2023 deadline for an 85 per cent completion of the project, allowing a three-year grace period after that date. Failure to reach that target means that the government has the right to rescind the emphyteusis and take back the land.

After MIDI has held the island for 20 years without starting the project, it’s clear that MIDI has no chance of reaching the 85 per cent completion rate by the deadlines set, including the three-year grace period.

Therefore, this would be a golden opportunity for the government to take back Manoel Island and restore it to the nation as a green heritage park as Flimkien għal Ambjent Aħjar has been proposing.

MIDI has been unable to start the project due to various issues, including various challenges by FAA and alleged illegalities committed by the same MIDI.

The application process is still subject to challenges by FAA on numerous legal issues and environmental concerns, such as irregular traffic generation estimates and lack of social impact assessment.

At this late stage, it does not make sense to permit MIDI to start work as there is no way that they can reach the threshold in the time remaining.

The government needs to take a stand in favour of the public interest now before the project starts.

If the project is approved and MIDI reaches, say, 40 per cent, the authorities would be faced with either extending the deadline or with a financial and environmental mess of an incomplete project.

The government should not let itself be forced into extending the emphyteusis. The only sensible decision is for the government to decide now that the emphyteusis will not be extended.

Manoel Island has assets that are of international significance. At a time when Malta’s tourism has sunk below that of neighbouring Mediterranean countries, why not use these incredible assets to help us raise our profile and tourism offering?

Does our government realise or care about the importance of our country’s UNESCO sites?

This is a golden opportunity to return this gem of an island to the nation as a green heritage park for the enjoyment of the residents, visitors and tourists alike.

This is putting people first rather than business.

We urge the government to take a decisive step to correct the error of the past and return Manoel Island to public ownership. Blow the whistle.

Time up MIDI.

MIDI right of reply

In a reply, MIDI said that a number of statements made were false, misleading and in some cases libellous.

Downsizing

It said that the development has been significantly downscaled from that contemplated in the original Emphyteutical deed. New buildings have been scaled down to cover approximately 10% of MIDI’s concession, with their gross floor area covering 55,000sqm compared to the 95,000sqm permitted in the existing Outline Development Permit. 

The revised masterplan also does not include land reclamation in front of the Gzira promenade. 

Open spaces

MIDI said the revised masterplan includes 175,000sqm of public open space, equivalent to 22 football pitches and a 20 per cent increase when compared to plans in the existing Outline Development Permit.

The open area will include an 80,000 square metre park surrounding Fort Manoel where families can picnic or go for walks and a 35,000 square metre open space from the entrance to the island to Lazzaretto quay, which will be partly landscape and partly paved. 

It said the project would be developed with pedestrians prioritised and with sports facilities to be used by the local community, including a bocci club and pitch for Gzira Utd football club. 

Building heights

Allegations that buildings would be six storeys high were false, MIDI said. “The revised masterplan contemplates four-storey residential blocks with extended ground floor heights in a limited area in order to provide for commercial units. At no time will the heights of the new buildings exceed the height of Fort Manoel.”  

Roman remains and heritage buildings

Roman structures beneath the Manoel Island seabed would also not be damaged, MIDI added, with dredging works excluding areas thought to include structures of archaeological importance.        

Around €40 million will be spent to restore heritage buildings, MIDI said, and the additional floor at the Lazzaretto was approved in terms of the full development permit PA07964/05, which is not subject to appeal. Authorities had concluded that the additions were largely acceptable and sensitive to the site’s cultural and historic values, it said.  

Completion obligation

MIDI said the Emphyteutical Deed provides that development works at Manoel Island and Tigne Point must be substantially completed by March 31 2026, including the three-year grace period. 

But, it added, the deed also stated that the “substantial completion of the development” was to be directly linked to executable development permits for each phase of the development. 

“MIDI categorically refutes the claim that the delays associated with obtaining permits are partly attributable to alleged illegalities committed by MIDI. This statement is false and libellous.” 

“MIDI respects the right of registered objectors to appeal the decisions of both the Planning Authority and the Environment and Resources Authority.

"However, it is apparent that the FAA intends to appeal every decision taken by the authorities in the hope that the delays will negatively impact the time frames associated with MIDI’s obligations. 

“MIDI will ensure that the right to develop Manoel Island is upheld and remains committed to develop the site in terms of the revised masterplan. In the meantime, MIDI will continue to work with the local council and other consultees who are prepared to engage in meaningful dialogue”. 

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