Land Speculation at White Rocks

Having first class sports facilities in Malta is an objective which everyone shares. Hence the point at issue, in my view, is not whether a sports complex should be developed but how this can be done and the manner in which it should be financed.

The government has opted for direct negotiations with the selected partners. Was it right in directly selecting the proposed developers and negotiating away from the spotlight of tendering rules and procedures which a normal democratic society imposes?

My view is that the method of selection clearly indicates the government’s disdain for transparency and accountability, even if the final deal will eventually be presented for Parliament’s approval. Removing the major part of the process from the continuous scrutiny of the public institutions set up purposely for their examination, is a clear indication of what could lie in store. Comments have already surfaced as to the ethical credentials of those selected as partners.

An eventual agreement will consist of two elements: the provision of the sports facilities and a prime site residential development consisting of around 300 residential units. The second element is intended to finance the first, the land being made available by the taxpayer through publicly-owned land.

Three documents need to be examined in order to identify the applicable parameters and the considerations to be made.

The first document of relevance is the Development Brief for the White Rocks site issued by the then Planning Authority in 1995. Even if then the proposed development was for an “upmarket tourism project” the development parameters drawn up are of extreme relevance to today’s discussion.

The site, the brief informs us, has a total area of 36.9 hectares. This is subdivided into three zones. Zone 1, having an area of 38 per cent of the total, consists of the existing holiday complex and its facilities. Zone 2 (39 per cent of the area) consists of a mixed garigue and rocky coastline, including the marine environment and archaeological resources. Zone 3 (23 per cent of the area) consists of agricultural land.

The 1995 brief laid out that only Zone 1 was to be released for development. The brief identified one exception: an underground structure in Zone 2 which was to be rehabilitated and in respect of which no extension of its footprint was to be considered.

The second document of relevance to the White Rocks site is the North Harbour Local Plan approved in August 2006. This document, in addition to ignoring any development potential of the White Rocks site, defines it as a “green wedge”. Now, to my mind this means that no development is permissible on the site.

The third document of relevance is the Habitats Directive of the EU applicable to these islands as of May 2004. Zone 1 of the White Rocks site is adjacent to a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) which has been so declared by Malta and approved by the EU Commission. This spills over into Zone 2 described above.

Now the only development permissible in SACs is that which is necessary for the management of the site. The Habitats Directive further lays down that activities on sites adjacent to SACs are restricted too, such that they serve as a buffer zone and are not the indirect cause of damage to the said SACs.

If the above parameters are adhered to, it is not at all clear which sports facilities can be developed on the White Rocks site. Given that Zone 1 covers 38 per cent of the total area, the space is limited both in terms of area as well as in terms of potential for the development of sports facilities. This would leave unanswered questions as to where the 300 projected residential units intended as payment for services rendered by the developing consortium are to be built.

One hopes that in planning the development of the sports complex the limits identified in the 1995 development brief will not be ignored.

Given the development parameters established in 1995, to which one must now add the responsibilities derived from the EU Habitats Directive of the European Union, it is doubtful whether the White Rocks site is suitable for development as a sports complex of the extent indicated by the Prime Minister and other government spokesmen.

Furthermore, it is neither possible nor acceptable to develop 300 residential units on the site to settle the costs of this development.

This is just land speculation in its crudest form. In an overdeveloped Malta the least one expects is a government engaging in speculative development in order to settle its bills and simultaneously claiming that the environment is one of its main policy pillars!

One wonders whose advice government is listening to. At times it seems that it has retained its Xagħra l-Ħamra advisors: those that had convinced it to promote a golf course without having first understood its environmental implications. Governments never learn.

published in The Times of Malta, July 3, 2010