Nationalist MP Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando yesterday called on the government to divert funds allocated for the "extravagant" underground extension of St John's Co-Cathedral Museum in Valletta to the urgent restoration of forts St Elmo and St Angelo.

He called for the exploration of cheaper and more viable alternatives, including exhibiting some of the museum items in a nearby palazzo.

The argument is aligned with that of environmentalists, with whom he had fallen foul following the controversy that had surrounded an application for an open-air disco to be built on ecologically sensitive land the MP owns in Mistra.

Dr Pullicino Orlando was speaking during one of Parliament's marathon sessions meant to be dedicated to the budget.

Yesterday's was the first public position taken by a Nationalist MP against the project. One of the council members of the St John's Co-Cathedral Foundation, which has proposed the plans and administers the museum, is Richard Cachia Caruana, a central figure in the Nationalist Party.

The young MP said he could not understand how the government had sought €14 million from EU structural and cohesion funds for the controversial St John's project when the two forts could be restored with a third of that amount.

He even wondered how the project had been selected for EU funding in the first place.

While the restoration of St Elmo has been priced at around €2.4 million, a spokesman for Heritage Malta says restoring St Angelo could cost around €15 million.

Dr Pullicino Orlando said the priorities need to be reorganised and appealed to the Planning and Priorities Division at the Office of the Prime Minister to reconsider the matter.

"If the government allows the project to go through, it would be acting like a father whose children are in torn, old clothes, while he buys a BMW to impress friends. Given its limited resources, this country clearly needs to set its priorities," he said, reminiscent of his outspokenness on environmental issues in the past.

He insisted that the proposed project would cause major inconvenience while works were in progress, adding that it was difficult to see how the works would not damage the Co-Cathedral.

He pointed out that the architect responsible for the project had not given any guarantees as he recalled that the Co-Cathedral's foundation had itself stopped a neighbouring shop from digging a small hole for a safe, because of the risk of damage. "How can it now apply to dig a whole quarry outside St John's?" he asked.

Dr Pullicino Orlando even asked whether it was true that there would also be tunnels under the cathedral itself for access purposes. "Does anyone believe these would not cause damage to this historic edifice?" he asked, pointing out that the development would probably also damage Valletta's historic tunnels.

He even questioned the maintenance costs of the project which are said to be quite hefty, particularly because of the air conditioning systems the underground museum would need.

"Surely it makes more sense to use such funds on restoration works?"

The environment impact assessment on its own would cost €50,000. And at the same time other historic jewels were in real danger of being lost forever, he insisted.

The young dentist was left out of what was expected to be a sure seat on the Cabinet last March after Labour revealed the controversial Mistra permit which then ended up being at the centre of an investigation on corruption claims.

No corruption charges were eventually brought against Dr Pullicino Orlando but two Development Control Commission members and the Malta Tourism Authority's former CEO were charged with trading in influence.

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