(Adds statement by another five NGOs)
It is unacceptable for the government to have proposed virgin land for the construction of a university instead of considering disused or brownfield sites, Din l-Art Helwa said this morning.
It said in a statement that while proposals to encourage educational institutions to open branches in Malta were to be encouraged, the most recent proposal was suspect, given that it was led by a developer rather than by an educational establishment.
The land which the government put on the table would become worth millions to certain individuals as a commercial building site, however it is worth far, far more to future generations, it said.
Din l-Art Helwa said the fact that government sources told Times of Malta that the project would only be viable if ODZ land was used, showed that the government was disregarding the environmental cost of using up more countryside, when other sites might be available.
At a stroke, the government would enable a piece of ODZ land to increase in value by some €100 million gifting such value to the developer at the cost of the Maltese people, both present and future generations.
It said it would clearly be preferable to rehabilitate a dilapidated site, or find a use for existing buildings, than to take up more unbuilt land in the countryside or close to the sea.
“Open spaces should be preserved for the well-being of the community, as a respite from the concrete jungle that the Malta Environment and Planning Authority is now encouraging. Whether modern or historic buildings are identified, a project of this type should be accommodated close to population centres and not in the countryside.
“As the Environmental Impact Assessment must consider alternative sites, these should include government-owned, under-utilised buildings of which there are plenty, even in the south of Malta.”
Din l-Art Helwa said that the site selection exercise was, however, likely to be a sham, as the site had already been chosen, just as the consultation exercise with environmental NGOs at the eleventh hour was more like a marketing exercise, and also a complete sham.
“The government seems hell-bent on developing the coastal area near Zonqor and Xghajra, when the south of Malta is crying out for open spaces. An inadequately thought out proposal to build three hotels was first encouraged, and now this university which is to be built and managed by building contractors. Clearly the government sees no value in the countryside except as a source for speculation.”
Din l-Art Helwa referred to Mepa’s statement that it carried out a preliminary assessment which concluded that this ODZ countryside near Zonqor was acceptable for development.
“The full assessment and criteria used must be made available to the public so that it can draw its own conclusions. The way that this site was selected raises many questions, including whether any alternatives were seriously considered. If this site is now being opened for development on the flimsiest pretext what price the rest of the countryside,” it asked.
PUBLIC CONSULTATION 'COSMETIC EXERCISE'
In another statement, the Ramblers' Association, Flimkien Ghal Ambjent Ahjar, Malta Organic Agriculture Movement, Friends of the Earth and the TerraFirma Collective noted with disappointment that the government was already negotiating with the owners of private land in the Zonqor area.
This, they said, contradicted the impression that was given during a last minute consultation meeting with environmental NGOs on the eve of signing the agreement with Sadeen Group.
The NGO were given the impression that due consideration would be given to the option of re-siting the University away from the 90,000 square metres of ODZ land. This was further reinforced by other government statements.
They reiterated their position that more development in the countryside was unsustainable and unacceptable.
“In particular, the twisting of ODZ boundaries to accommodate large commercial developments makes a mockery of the concept of ODZ itself, whose purpose is to preserve the countryside and thus protect a common good.
“It is even more disturbing that the country's resources continue to be wasted in this manner, seeing that one per cent of Malta's total arable land will be destroyed in the process, while heritage sites lie vacant and falling to pieces.”
The NGO said several farmers who worked the surrounding lands expressed their worries that this would open the entire area to further development while diminishing the picturesque natural beauty of the Zonqor Point area.
The NGOs called on the government to clarify its position on this issue - whether re-siting was still on the cards or not, and why it was so essential for the development to be located in the countryside. They said they were willing to help find an alternative site to prevent more ODZ land from succumbing to development.
“If the re-siting exercise is not being taken seriously, then it would be grossly unfair to continue to waste the resources of the NGOs in this manner.
“It is becoming increasingly clear that the public consultation process on the University in the south so far has been no more than a cosmetic exercise, with all the eNGOs and local councils called in for nothing more than to legitimise a fait accompli,” they said.