The front-page headline on The Sunday Times, three days ago, said it all: "Only 20 per cent of SmartCity residential..." That nice touch, coming from the ministerial press release issued the previous day, was presumably meant to indicate that there was nothing to worry about in the way by which "Smart City" is being formatted. Luxury apartments would only cover a small percentage of the big territory due to be passed over for a song to the promoters of the "City". What a relief!
The snag with this news angle was that, actually, when it comes to the ratio of land allocated in the "Smart City" project to information technology and related computer enterprises, the figure stands at 19 per cent. The ratio is no longer one being touted by Labour media, as Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi started out by saying. It has been confirmed by the ministry for investments and whatever. Now surely 19 is a mite less than 20... and here there can be no obfuscation with figures and percentages as attempted by PN apologists in the media debates over the extension of new permits for building development island wide.
So, logically and reasonably, one can conclude that "only" 19 per cent of "Smart City" will be devoted to information technology etc. (which is what the project is supposed to be about); indeed less than what is earmarked for luxury apartments. No wonder that the grumpy press release issued by the government last Saturday was a mixed-up effort. It hit out at Mepa for having leaked details of the project, thereby forcing the ministry - horror of horrors! - to come clean with the public.
We had been subjected to tons of hype from the minister concerned and from the Prime Minister telling us about how "Smart City" would launch Malta into a future of computer magic. Here we are lumbered instead with a project, similar to others that have mushroomed over the years, carrying a huge overlay of real estate development... to be charitable. A cooler headed assessment would be to say that much of the "Smart City" project has turned out to be an exercise in real estate speculation.
There are worrying conclusions to draw from this debacle.
Dr Gonzi and Co. will continue to deny that a problem exists, but the truth of the matter is that, once again, the government has been revealed as indulging in political hype that has little relation to the facts. Moreover, the Prime Minister himself seems not to be in the loop. At one stage in the last fortnight (September 14), Dr Gonzi angrily brushed aside questions about the residential components at "Smart City", saying on the record that the inclusion of villas in the project was an invention of Super One and of "Labour" journalists. Five days later (September 19), Dr Gonzi brazenly admitted that a sizeable part of the "Smart City" land area would be dedicated to "luxury" accommodation. He went on to affirm that this was an important and essential part of a "city" project of such a nature.
The flip-flop can hardly be reconciled with the image, diligently promoted by government propaganda, of a Prime Minister who is on top of his dossiers and knows what is going on around him. The truth could be that at Castille they do not - or are not allowed to - monitor the juggling tricks the ministry of investments and whatever tries to knock together.
As with the "investment" in Brindisi harbour, the transfer of Chambrai, the sale of Pender Place, the closure of Sea Malta, the sale of Maltacom, shares among others, question marks about "Smart City" are multiplying. People are rightly asking whether, once again, they have been taken for a ride by the PN administration.
Were the footprint dedicated to IT activities at "Smart City" in the region of 91 per cent, rather than 19 per cent, there would have been no problem at all. Indeed, that is what the minister concerned gave people to understand would be the case, back in the middle of last March's local council elections. The information now available shows clearly that statements made then were totally misleading, and reflected the imperatives of the ongoing electoral campaign.
People are concluding that the "Smart City" deal could just turn out into another Mosta Technopark project, which will serve to screen the transactions of luxury apartment entrepreneurs from abroad. To camouflage this, the government side has been boasting about the thousands of jobs in IT that "Smart City" will create. But we have been here before. At Chambrai, at White Rocks, at Cottonera and elsewhere, the same generous job promises were made and then buried.
It is about time the Gonzi administration took the people into its confidence. Trumpeting that everything will turn out all right is no longer enough. The evidence of failures and inefficiencies is too strong. Worse, the reality of insider cliques, who are making hay while the sun shines, has become a familiar spectacle to too many honest citizens.
Presupposing that people wish to be considered smart while believing them to be dumb, and treating them accordingly, is an approach that has reached its sell-by date. The right approach must be to treat all citizens with respect for their intelligence, to tell them the truth, and to presuppose that they wish to build the future on the strength of their inherent intelligence not on possibly being included sometime, somewhere among the friends of powerful friends.
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