A week after it was revealed that 200 mature trees along the scenic ‘Rabat Road’ were earmarked for uprooting, the government has backed down on the controversial plan in the wake of a public outcry.

The revision of the plan, according to which only three trees will now be affected, was announced by Transport Minister Ian Borg. He was asked about the controversy during an onsite visit to the work on the reconstruction of the upper part of Mellieħa bypass.

The issue revolves around the €55 million Central Link Project which comprises the upgrading of the arterial road from the foot of Saqqajja Hill on the outskirts of Rabat down to Mrieħel Bypass junction. The ultimate objective of the project is to eliminate a bottleneck at Triq in-Nutar Zarb in Attard.

Last week, the Times of Malta published a story based on plans which Transport Malta had submitted to the planning authority a few days earlier, highlighting “existing trees to be uprooting”.

According to the plans, the bulk of the mature Aleppo Pine trees between Mount Carmel Hospital and the lower Saqqajja Hill junction would have had to be removed. 

Short of calling it fake news, the Transport Ministry insisted that “not all the trees” would face the axe. It also announced that 212 trees would be planted along the seven-kilometre route of the project.

On the same day that the story was published, Saturday, June 16, fresh plans were uploaded to the PA website showing the number of “trees to be uprooted” in this stretch had been reduced to about 60.

The following day, Times of Malta published the original plans in full and the controversy escalated.

Faced by mounting criticism, last Wednesday the government announced a third revision through which only 15 trees were to be uprooted. The fourth version was revealed Saturday morning.

Despite the chops and changes, which effectively meant drafting some of the plans from scratch, State broadcaster TVM yesterday reported the Transport Minister saying that this controversy had erupted over “fake news and spin”. Yet, when this newspaper yesterday challenged Mr Borg to substantiate his claim, he declined to comment saying he had already answered such questions when questioned by another Times of Malta reporter earlier this week. However, it turned out the questions to which he was referring were different from the ones sent on Saturday.

And by the time of writing, the PA website was still showing the plans dating back to June 16, with no trace of the third and fourth versions.

Unanswered questions

■ How can government accuse the Times of Malta of publishing ‘fake news’ when the story that 200 trees were earmarked for uprooting was based on plans submitted to the planning authority by Transport Malta?

■ If no such plan was ever in the pipeline, as the government is now saying, why were the plans submitted in the first place?

■ In less than a week following the publication of the story, the number of trees to be uprooted has been scaled down from 200 to just three. While this is surely a positive development, why was such a drastic revision only made in the wake of pressure from the media and NGOs?

■ Can we have the latest version of the Central Link Project plans, as by the time of writing these are not on the Planning Authority’s website?

Timeline of events

May 22: Transport Minister Ian Borg announces €55 million Central Link Project in a news conference.

June 13: Transport Malta submits five detailed plans of “existing trees to be uprooted” to the Planning Authority. According to these plans, some 200 mature trees would have had to be removed.

June 16: The Times of Malta publishes details of this controversial plan. The ministry issues a categorical denial but at the same time acknowledges that an unquantified number of trees would have to be uprooted. In its reaction it also announces that 212 new ones would be planted.

June 17: The Sunday Times of Malta publishes Transport Malta’s plans highlighting the 200 trees earmarked for uprooting. That same day, Transport Malta submits over 30 new plans including version 2 of “existing trees to be uprooted”.

June 18: An analysis carried out by the Times of Malta shows that version 2 would still result in 60 mature Aleppo pines being uprooted. Furthermore, it quotes biodiversity expert Alfred Baldacchino sating that transplanting them would be pointless as the chances of success would be very small

June 20: Version 3 of the plans is announced by the Transport Ministry, which would result in just 15 trees being uprooted. The plans are not yet available on PA’s website at the time of writing.

June 23: Version 4 of the plans: just three trees affected. Once again these were not available at the time of writing. Transport Minister Ian Borg reportedly brands this controversy a result of “fake news” but declines to substantiate his claim when challenged by this newspaper.

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