Friday 14 December 2018

No power to the people, just power to the few

Above photo: Screenshot from website where the apartments are already being advertised: note the price tag

This article first appeared in Malta Today 

Friday morning dawned with dark clouds and rain, fitting weather which reflected the general gloom in the hearts of many of us who are disappointed and feeling despondent after Thursday’s vote.   In case you are not in the loop, what is going to be built is a monstrous 38 storey tower block of apartments and a 17 storey hotel which will stretch tall and wide on the former site of the Institute of Tourism Studies.  (The fact that ITS students have been displaced and forced to attend lessons somewhere in Luqa until they are moved the other side of the island to Smart City is another issue).

Even as my heart sank while I read the depressing news about the decision, however, I was aware that I was not really that shocked by how the Planning Authority board had voted on the DB Group project (10 votes in favour, 4 against) – which in itself is very depressing. As others have already pointed out before me, DB group were so sure that the approval would go ahead that apartment units were already being sold on plan, everything was basically in place and this was just a rubber-stamping exercise by politically-appointed persons on the Board. Many were stunned by the fact that Environment and Resources Authority Chairman, Dr Victor Axiaq, also voted yes, but maybe I’ve just become numb to it all – I simply absorbed this information with the same blank reaction of those who have become desenthisized to violence, who can watch endless graphically violent movies without batting an eye.

The inevitability and hopelessness of it all just underlines and compounds the sorry state we have reached.  

Of course we have had large developments being given the go-ahead before (although if someone else asks me ‘where were you’ I think I might inflict grievous bodily harm), so it is understandable why there are those wondering what the big deal was about this one. 

First of all, the sheer footprint of the thing will change the area forever. You think traffic is a nightmare getting in and out of that area now? Baby, you ain’t seen nothing yet.  You now need to imagine the additional traffic caused by even more residents and tourists all packed into the same stretch of land. The many years it will take until it is completed will mean years of the now customary noise, dust and drilling, of gigantic diggers, bulldozers and cranes to which our eyes have wearily become accustomed to.  And were will all that construction waste go when there is already a problem to dispose of all the waste being generated now?  

What also made this project different is that there were over 4000 objections filed with the PA – a truly unprecedented number. The local councils of Pembroke, St Julian’s, Sliema and Swieqi showed a unanimous front and united against this development (unfortunately, the local councils together only had one vote on the Board through their representative, the much-admired Pembroke Mayor, Dean Hili). What was also significant is that the objection to this project grew in momentum and galvanized people who do not even live in the area, showing that many have now moved beyond nimby-ism and are starting to realize that the whole country is our ‘backyard’, and a collective effort needs to be made to try and protect what is left.   The residents’ fight to save their beloved Pembroke, with their excellent slogan “Do not bury us alive”, came to represent not just the residents, but all of us.  The across-the-board unity which they managed to achieve, for once irrespective of political allegiance, was something rare, and beautiful to witness. For we all are suffering both from the relentless construction and the ensuing pollution when it comes to our health (which has lead to an increase in asthma, allergies, sinus infections and other respiratory diseases) as well as our daily quality of life.

The other aspect to the Pembroke development which has stuck in people’s craw is that this was public land, practically given away to the owner of DB Group, Silvio Debono, and he is about to make a killing in the property and hospitality market through this development (unless everything goes belly up first, that is). Even more outrageous is that he wants a tunnel to be built for the traffic flow which he expects the Government to fund. Yes, you heard that right, YOU AND I HAVE TO PAY FOR THIS THROUGH OUR TAXES. I’m sorry for ‘shouting’ but that bit just demanded caps. 

As the time drew near for Thursday’s vote, the sheer amount of people who showed up in person against the DB project provided a sliver of hope that public opinion would count for something – surely they could not all be brazenly ignored?  But they could, and they were.

This, more than anything else, has unleashed the type of public fury which is not that common in the usually apathetic, complacent, you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours Malta.  For if 4000 people could be ignored by ten people who held all the reins in their hands, what hope is there for all this madness to stop?  

 

One thing which social media does give you is a kind of ‘feel’ of people’s concerns – those who are active online that is.  Following the vote and throughout Friday, I noticed that Pembroke is all people were talking about. Desperate attempts to steer the conversation towards the lack of interest at the Granaries for the Independence Day celebrations and other stories connected to the PN, fell as flat as the proverbial soufflé .  No one really cares about that – what we do care about is that another nail has been placed in the coffin of a Malta we are burying under a frenzy of construction and so-called luxury developments. 

Of course you will always have those who applaud anything and everything as long as it’s their party in Govenrmet doing it.  I saw a comment by someone who is delighted because we are going to have buildings like in Dubai..xi ġmiel she said.  Leaving aside one’s definition of what constitutes beauty, because that is always subjective, can someone explain to me why on earth we would want to be like Dubai? 

Asked for his reaction, a spokesperson for the Prime Minister noted that “the decision on the DB project has gone through a consultation process as well as through various stages of planning and environmental permits and after having to adhere to clear policies.”

Frankly, I think the next mega project to be approved should be right next door to those ten shameful people who voted yes for this scandalous development. Or better yet, following the usual consultation and various planning and environmental stages, I propose that a permit should be issued for a 160 storey tower apartment block (just like Dubai!) and I have the perfect place for it: I suggest a certain street in Burmarrad, smack in front of Joseph Muscat’s residence.  

After all, he has made all this possible by getting into bed with the development lobby, to whom he owes some very big favours. So it is only right that he should get a first-hand taste of what it is going to feel like for the Pembroke residents and everyone else on these islands who has to live with a construction site or ten in their area. 

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