Updated 7.25pm, adds ADPD statement

The Planning Authority on Thursday approved by a whisker the controversial db Group project in Pembroke despite unprecedented opposition from local councils, residents and environmental groups.

The objectors will be appealing the decision.

The project was approved with four votes in favour and three against, including the Pembroke council representative. 

The €250 million project will see the construction of a 12-storey hotel and two 17- and 18-storey residential towers on the former ITS site. 

The decision was taken by seven board members after five members decided to recuse themselves due to a possible conflict since they were present when the project was first approved in 2018. 

The three members who voted against - Gilmour Camilleri, Omar Vella and Pembroke deputy mayor Omar Arab - said there were big question marks on the project, especially about the tunnel leading to the project which is covered by a separate application. 

Those voting in favour were chairman Martin Camilleri, Saviour Debono Grech, Sean Mangion and Duncan Mifsud.

Earlier, PA chairman Vince Cassar, Environmental Resources Authority chairman Victor Asciak, Joseph Brincat and NGO representative Annick Bonello sent a note to the board saying that although they believed they could decide on the matter, they had decided to withdraw from the hearing anyway. Lawyer Chris Cilia recused himself over a potential professional conflict.  

The PA board usually has 11 members, including the chair. Following the recusal, the remaining board members amounted to six. A board meeting requires a quorum of seven members and that quorum was reached with the representative of the Pembroke council.

The project had actually been approved in a sitting in 2018 but was sent back to the drawing board in 2019 after a court found that Matthew Pace, one of the authority's members who voted in favour, had a potential financial interest in it being approved. 

This application was later withdrawn and the development was downscaled to 31 floors in new plans submitted last year, with the developers saying they had listened to the complaints and acted on them.

Moviment Graffitti's Andre Callus described the project as an "atrocity and the worst project ever proposed” in Malta, as he lashed out at the developers for stealing the land from the public.

“You have to be a non-conscientious person to approve this atrocity. It is manifestly disgusting,” he said, as he questioned the point of a public consultation if the PA was still recommending the project for approval when thousands objected to it.

Pembroke deputy mayor Omar Arab said his council appreciated that the developers sat with the council and discussed ways to improve the project, which eventually led to it being scaled down. However, the council felt that it remained a massive project in a residential area so could not vote in its favour. 

The mayors of Swieqi and St Julian’s, Noel Muscat and Albert Buttigieg, pleaded with the PA board to reject the project which would attract thousands of people on a daily basis, creating more traffic to the detriment of residents of Pembroke and neighbouring towns.

Buttigieg said that although the site is part of his locality, his council had been excluded from the process. He argued that the PA was deciding on individual projects presented in a piecemeal approach rather than in a holistic manner.

“Can seven people decide on behalf of 30,000 people living in the three localities affected by this project,” he asked adding that although the project was being described as a landmark, it was “a big blasphemy”. 

Buttigieg said the St Julian’s council did not want any of the planning gain of the €1.3 million that the developers have to pay, saying that the council will not be bought by the developers’ money. 

Lawyer Claire Bonello said the project’s approval of the project was dependent on the tunnel linking it to Pembroke, but nothing was said about this tunnel which was subject to a separate application. 

She also lamented that NGOs were not represented on the board because of the recusal of Annick Bonello from the hearing. 

On the other hand, architects for the db Group explained how the new plans had downscaled the project by 30%, down to 147,000 square metres of floor area from 210,000. Public spaces had also increased by almost 50%. He said the new proposal involved 106,000 cubic metres less of excavation, equivalent to 5,335 truckloads. 

Db Group CEO Arthur Gauci said that according to an economic impact assessment, the project will create 1,000 jobs with a total revenue for the State of €83 million for the first five years of operation. During the construction phase, the project was estimated to have an economic impact of €321 million, he said. 

PN calls for resignation of members who recused themselves

In a statement, the Nationalist Party called for the resignation of the board members who opted to recuse themselves.

It said that although it agreed that any conflict of interest should be declared, the fact that five board members only declared this just before the meeting was condemnable.

This continued to eat at the board’s credibility when it came to deciding on projects of a certain scale and their impact on the environment and residents.

The PN said it was determined, more than ever before, that a fair balance had to be found between development and the environment and it would soon be moving proposals on how entities such as the Planning Authority should function and act in the interest of the common good, with the environment and planning being among the main aims.

It said it was determined to introduce good governance and reform the current planning system for development to safeguard everybody’s interests.

Perverted process which favours speculators - ADPD

In another statement, ADPD said Thursday’s decision reflected a “perverted process which favours speculators”. 

It said that the permit was possible because the masterplan for the area, which was never approved, was designed to favour profits for the rich at the expense of the public and residents.

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