Village size embassies: are they required?

The US embassy was built some 9 years ago on a large tract of land at Ta’ Qali purchased from the Maltese Government for €14.6 million. The footprint of the Ta’ Qali Embassy is slightly over 4 hectares in size.

Earlier this week a development permit for a new Chinese Embassy at Pembroke, covering an area of around 2 hectares, was approved by the Planning Authority. The Chinese Embassy compound will be half the size of the US embassy complex but it still has quite a substantial footprint. The land to be developed as a Chinese Embassy was purchased from the Maltese Government for €7,880,000.

Why have these foreign governments been permitted to develop their embassies on such large tracts of land? If they really need space, would it not have been much more helpful if they were advised to restore some old, possibly historic building, as a result giving back something to Maltese society?

How long will it take before some other request for the development of another enormous embassy complex is made? From the Russian Federation maybe?

Does the debate on the American University in Malta not ring a bell? Have we not learnt anything from that public debate as a result of which the only functioning campus is at the former Malta Drydocks? The historic properties on that site, namely the seventeenth century Knights’ Building and the nineteenth century British naval workshops have been restored and given a new use. This has resulted in a net environmental gain, in the process protecting land at Marsaskala from development: a portion of our countryside was saved from ruin.

We will never have an honest reply to the basic question as to what all this space in the village size embassies is needed for. In addition to basic consular work and the development of relations with the business and local community these village size embassies are also inevitably an eavesdropping focus for intelligence gathering in the Mediterranean region.

Some tend to describe both the United States and the Republic of China as being very good friends of Malta. In reality it is a well-established foreign policy principle that countries do not have friends: they have interests. Diplomatic relations serve to further these interests.

Malta’s central location in the Mediterranean makes it ideal as a monitoring post and that is undoubtedly one of the basic interests for such large embassies. Ensuring that this interest is well catered for in Malta is a priority for both the United States of America and the Republic of China.

The recent debate on the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) relative to US Forces is indicative. Only the naïve would have failed to note the unofficial comments flying around in order to understand what was going on around the negotiating tables.

In larger countries it may make sense to have large embassies. However, in Malta we could definitely do without them. In a small country such as ours, they are definitely not required to improve the relations with the United States, China or any other country.

The Embassy of the United States of America has now been built and it has been operational for the past nine years. The Chinese embassy is however still on plan. Even if it has just been approved the Chinese Ambassador could still give the matter some further thought and consider the possible rehabilitation of some old building or buildings, possibly historical ones, instead of his massive embassy, the size of a small village!

Possibly that could turn the problem of the location and land uptake of the proposed embassy on its head and develop it into a unique opportunity.

It is never too late Mr Ambassador to take note.

published on The Malta Independent on Sunday: 1 November 2020

Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor

 laudato_si_    Cry of the Earth


This is the title of Leonardo Boff’s seminal work on the inextricable link between social justice and environmental degradation, originally published in 1995.  Earlier, during the 1972 UN Human Environment Conference in Stockholm, it was also the rallying cry of India’s Prime Minister  Indira Gandhi who, on behalf of the developing world, forcefully insisted that poverty was inextricably linked with environmental degradation.  In Stockholm Mrs Gandhi had emphasised that “the environment cannot be improved in conditions of poverty  –  how can we speak to those who live in villages and slums about keeping the oceans, the rivers and the air clean, when their own lives are contaminated at the source?”

This is also the underlying theme of the encyclical Laudato Sì published by Pope Francis last June. It is not just a seasonal Latin American flavour at Vatican City.  The earth’s tears are continuously manifested in different ways depending on the manner in which she is maltreated .

Environmental degradation has a considerable impact on the quality of life of  us all except, that is, for the quality of life of  the select few who pocket the profits by appropriating for themselves advantages (economic or otherwise) and lumping the negative impacts on the rest.

Environmental degradation is an instrument of social injustice. Consequently, enhancing the protection of the environment is also essential to restore social justice.

The water table is subject to continuous daylight robbery: over the years it has been depleted by both authorised and unauthorised water extraction.  What is left is contaminated as a result of the impact of fertilisers as well as surface water runoff from the animal husbandry industry. Theft and acute mismanagement  are the tools used in the creation of this injustice.

The Malta Freeport has been quite successful over the years in contributing to economic growth and job creation. The price for this has, however, been paid by Birżebbuġa residents – primarily through being subjected to continuous noise pollution on a 24/7 basis. Various residential units in the area closest to the Freeport Terminal are vacant and have been so for a considerable time. A noise report commissioned as a result of the conditions of the Terminal’s environmental permit will be concluded shortly. Hopefully, the implementation of its conclusions will start the reversal of the Freeport’s negative impacts on its neighbours.

The Freeport, together with various fuel storage outlets, the Delimara Power Station (including the floating gas storage facility which will soon be a permanent feature) as well as fish-farms have together definitely converted Marsaxlokk Bay into an industrial port. As a result of various incidents during 2015, spills in Marsaxlokk Bay signify that Pretty Bay risks losing its title permanently.   Fortunately, Birżebbuġa residents have been spared additional impact originating from minor ship and oil-rig repairs after they reacted vociferously to a decision by the MEPA Board to permit such work at the Freeport Terminal.

Public Transport has made minor improvements but nowhere near what is required. It is essential that Malta’s congested roads are mopped up of the excessive number of cars. Improving the road infrastructure will just make it easier for more cars to roam about in our roads, thereby increasing the scale of the problem.  The major consequences are a reduced ease of access and the deterioration air quality.

We will soon be in a position to assess the impact of two other major projects: a business hub at the Malta International Airport as well as a car-racing track with various ancillary facilities. The former will take up land at the airport carpark but will have considerable impact on the surrounding villages. The car-racing track may take up as much as 110 hectares of land outside the development zone and have a considerable impact on both nature and local residents in the areas close to where it will be developed.

The list of environmental impacts that we have to endure is endless.

I could also have included the impact of the Malta Drydocks and the consequent squeezing out of residents from the Three Cities as a result of its operations, primarily as a result of sandblasting, in the 1970s and 1980s. I could also have added the impact of the waste recycling plant at Marsaskala and the refusal of the authorities to finance studies on the impact of its operations on the health of residents, or else the impact of the operation of petrol stations close to and within various residential areas.

The size of the Maltese islands is limited. A number of the abovementioned  activities/developments  are essential, but others are not. However, it stands to reason that we should not bear the brunt of non-essential activities or developments. This should lead us to plan more carefully so that  the impacts of the activities that are essential are adequately addressed.

As evidenced by the above list, unfortunately over the years those taking decisions betrayed their responsibilities towards the common good, seeking, instead the interests of the select few thereby compounding social injustices.

This is Malta’s contribution to the accumulated tears of Mother Earth.


published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 10 January 2016

Symbolic gestures do not compensate for planning failures

MFT.4 new cranes

Last Thursday, the MEPA Board finally decided to approve the Freeport Terminal’s application to install four cranes with 140-metre high jibs at the terminal. This decision was taken after the Board, in an anticipated about-turn, accepted a second declaration from Transport Malta as a recommendation for approval of the proposal.

In August, Transport Malta had pointed out that the installation of these new cranes was “not desirable” as, due to their height, they would “penetrate one of the established aeronautical protection surfaces by circa 18m”. However notwithstanding the conclusion that, for this reason, the Freeport’s proposal was not considered as undesirable, “given the importance of this facility to the economy”  Transport Malta gave its go-ahead to the Freeport’s proposal subject to a number of mitigation measures.

The Freeport facilities are too close to the residential area of Birżebbuġa and, over the years, MEPA has not given sufficient consideration to the impact that this facility has had – and is still having – on the quality of life of the residential community.

At no point during its consideration of the various planning applications submitted over the years has MEPA considered it necessary to consider the social impact of this economic activity. In fact, primarily as a result of the Freeport’s operations, most of the sport facilities in the area, introduced by the British services over the years, have disappeared. It is only recently that the extensive damage to the waterpolo pitch was made good,  through the reconstruction of a new waterpolo pitch. The activities of the Sailing Club, which  borders the terminal, have also been badly affected as a result of the increase in the number of ships making use of the terminal. The Birżebbuġa Sailing Club, ironically sponsored by the Freeport itself, is the only one of its kind in Malta’s political south.

Last Thursday, MEPA, despite opposition from the Freeport Terminal management, decided on compensating the Birżebbuġa community through the creation of an ad hoc fund to the amount of €955,000 to fund environmental improvement projects in the Birżebbuġa area. It is the second time in six years that MEPA has considered it necessary to take such a symbolic decision. The first time was in 2009, when a fund of €741,820 was created for the same purpose. That decision was, however, quashed by the Lawrence Gonzi-led Cabinet as a result of the planning appeal process, even though the Environment and Planning Review Tribunal  in an 11-page recommendation, explained why the original decision was to be confirmed.

The decision to create this latest ad hoc fund is symbolic in that it recognises the Freeport’s negative impact on the local community. It will not, however, have any substantial effect. It is just a symbolic recognition of the fact that the contribution of the Freeport Terminal to Malta’s economic growth is being achieved at the expense of the quality of life of Birżebbuġa residents.

It  is known that a number of residential properties in the area closest to the terminal have been vacant for a considerable time, as the noise generated through its operation is at times unbearable, irrespective of the time of day.

This is certainly a major failure of land-use planning in Malta, a failure that will be compounded in the coming months when other major planning decisions –  such as the gas storage facilities for the Delimara Power Station just across the bay from the Freeport Terminal – come into operation.

The transformation of Marsaxlokk Bay into an industrial port is now practically complete and, gradually, a substantial number of residents will be squeezed out.  It is the same process as that experienced by the Three Cities at Cottonera as a result of the activities of Malta Drydocks. The results can be seen by all.  Soon, the shedding of crocodile tears will commence and then the rehabilitation of Marsaxlokk Bay may possibly be planned.

originally published in The Malta Independent on Sunday – 13 December 2015

It-Tarżna ….. il-fejn ?


Fil-ġranet li ġejjin bil-mod jinħema l-futur tat-Tarżna.


Il-Gvern iddeċieda (a bażi ta’ rapport li qed jgħid li għandu) kemm irid ikun in-numru ta’ ħaddiema li jkollha t-Tarżna biex tkun attraenti għal xerrej prospettiv. Minn 1,600 illum trid tinżel għal madwar 700 qal il-Ministru. Kif ir-rapport wasal għal din il-konklużjoni diffiċli tgħid sakemm ir-rapport ma jkunx pubbliku. Ħaġa li s’issa għad ma saritx.


Kif tista’ tasal għall-aħjar daqs ta’ labour force meħtieġa meta m’huwiex magħruf min hu interessat li jieħu t-Tarżna f’idejħ ?  Dan iwassal għal konklużjoni waħda : in-numru ta’ ċirka 700 ħaddiem huwa biss eżerċizzju indikattiv li fil-prattika ma jfisser xejn. Jiena qiegħed niskarta l-unika alternattiva li jibqa’, jiġifieri li n-numru 700 huwa indikat minn xi kumpanija jew kumpaniji li huma interessati fit-Tarżna.


Jekk allura in-numru ta’ 700 ħaddiem li għandu jkollha t-Tarżna huwa biss indikattiv ma jagħmilx sens illi f’dan l-istadju, meta għadu kmieni l-Gvern jasal għal konklużjonijiet . Safejn naf jien ħadd għadu ma jaf mhux biss min huma l-kumpaniji interessati, iżda ukoll xi pjanijiet għandhom għat-Tarżna. Is-snajja’ li għandhom bżonn huma magħrufa imma n-numru jddependi mix-xogħol u l-kwantita tiegħu li s-sidien il-ġodda ser iġibu.


Ilu magħruf żmien (minn qabel ma Malta issieħbet fl-Unjoni Ewropeja) illi wara l-31 ta’ Diċembru 2008 ma jistax ikun hemm iktar sussidji għat-Tarżna, tant li waqt il-kampanja elettorali għall-elezzjoni ta’ Marzu 2008 kienu ċari il-posizzjonijiet tal-partiti :


PN : kwiet u kliem mill-inqas ħlief li m’huwiex ser ikun hemm downsizing (ċjoe tnaqqis),

MLP : li jinnegozja perjodu transitorju ġdid mal-Unjoni Ewropea; dan ovvjament għax l-MLP dehrlu li l–Gvern immexxi mill-PN ma għamilx użu tajjeb mill-perjodu transitorju,

AD : l-Appeldore report tas-snin 90 huwa l-mudell li fuqu trid titfassal is-soluzzjoni għall-problema Tarżna u dan billi l-ħaddiema li ma jkunux meħtieġa għal xogħol fuq il-vapuri jinstabilhom xogħol alternattiv u produttiv.


Din hi s-sitwazzjoni illum. Is-soluzzjoni teżisti u ma tinvolvix spejjes ikbar milli l-Gvern qiegħed jipproġetta. Li hemm bżonn hu rieda tajba li sfortunatament mhux dejjem tidher li qegħda hemm.



Ħaġa waħda hi ċara : jekk il-problema ma tissolvix m’hu ser jirbaħ ħadd. Ser jitlef kulħadd. Jitlef il-pajjiż, jitilfu l-ħaddiema tat-Tarżna u titlef il-Union.


Iżda hu possibli li jirbaħ kulħadd madwar il-mejda. Dan jista’ jsir biss wara li jiġi mwarrab it-theddid u l-paroli vojt li qed jiġi sparat minn kull naħa.