Townsquare: qed jgħadduk biż-żmien?

Townsquare.Fawlty Tower 

Il-bieraħ kont preżenti għall-ewwel seduta tal-appell mid-deċiżjoni tat-torri ta’ Townsquare.

Ir-rappreżentant legali tal-Awtoritá tal-Ippjanar nixxef lil kulħadd meta talab lill-membri tat-Tribunal ta’ Reviżjoni għall-Ambjent  l-Ippjanar [dak li sa ftit ilu kien il-Bord tal-Appell] biex jikkunsidraw li l-Kunsill Lokali ta’ tas-Sliema, l-għaqdiet ambjentali u l-Awtoritá tal-Ambjent ma kellhomx dritt li jippreżentaw  dan l-appell.

Tafu għaliex?

Għax kull wieħed minnhom kellu rappreżentant fil-Bord tal-Awtoritá tal-Ippjanar meta din ħadet id-deċiżjoni dwar it-torri ta’ Townsquare.

Uħud minnkom forsi tiftakru kemm kien hemm min ftaħar li s-separazzjoni tal-Ippjanar mill-Ambjent kien ser iwassal għal iżjed attenzjoni u fuq kollox li l-Awtoritá tal-Ambjent kien ser ikollha id-dritt mhux biss li tipparteċipa fil-Bord imma li fuq kollox kien ser ikollha d-dritt li tappella mid-deċiżjonijiet tal-Ippjanar biex tħares l-ambjent aħjar.

L-Avukat Robert Abela jidher li għandu ideat differenti minn dawk li ħabbru diversi Ministri fil-Parlament.

Inkella, dawn l-istess Ministri ppruvaw jgħadduk biż-żmien!

The financing of Fawlty Towers

Townsquare.Fawlty Tower

The saga of the Mrieħel and the Townsquare towers is now entering a new phase, with the planning appeal stopwatch due to start ticking shortly –  most probably towards the end of the month. It is known that, so far, Sliema Local Council and a number of environmental NGOs will be appealing against the 4 August decision of the Planning Authority to approve the “Fawlty Towers” at Mrieħel and Townsquare Sliema .

Financing of the projects is next. The banks cannot increase their already substantial exposure to loans that are dependent on building speculation. Consequently, the developers will inevitably have to seek the involvement of private citizens and, possibly, institutional investors. Most probably, the process for financing the projects has already commenced; it will involve the issuing of bonds to the public and will normally be sponsored by a bank and a stock-broking agency.

The bank or banks and stockbrokers sponsoring the bond issue will have to ensure that the bonds are subject to an “appropriateness and suitability testing” subject to such direction as the Malta Financial Services Authority  may consider necessary and suitable. Also, in the light of past local unpleasant experiences, the Authority will undoubtedly be guided by the need to ensure  that prospective investors fully understand the inherent risks of the proposed investments.  It will also ensure that detailed information is published in the form of a suitable prospectus in which the small print is both legible and understandable.

Those who finance the high-rise projects should shoulder responsibility for their impact together with the Planning Authority and the developers. They will potentially make it happen, so they should carry the can. It is important to get this message through: those who will invest in the Gasan and Tumas bonds intended to finance the “Fawlty  Towers”  should receive more than a monetary return on their investment. The moment they sign up they will also assume co-responsibility – with the developers, the Planning Authority, the bank or banks and the sponsoring stockbrokers – for this projected development .

Word is going around on the need to boycott the services and products placed on the market by the Gasan and Tumas Groups. Journalist Jürgen Balzan, writing in Malta Today described these services and products as being wide-ranging (hotels, car-dealerships, gaming, finance and property) which easily impact on the daily life of a substantial number of Maltese citizens. However, such a boycott’s only link with  the “Fawlty  Towers”  would be through the owners.  It would be preferable for a boycott to have a direct link with the offensive action.  In this context, the forthcoming bond issue to finance the “Fawlty  Towers”  presents itself as a suitable opportunity.

A boycott is a non-violent instrument of protest that is perfectly legitimate in a democratic society. The boycotting of the forthcoming bond issue would send a clear message that people will not be complicit in further ruining the  urban fabric of Sliema and ensure that development at Imrieħel is such that the historic landscape is fully respected.

A social impact assessment, if properly carried out, would have revealed the apprehensions of the residents in particular the residents on the Tignè peninsula. But, unfortunately, as stated by Sliema Green Local Councillor Michael Briguglio, the existing policy-making process tends to consider such studies as an irritant rather than as a tool for holistic management and community participation.

We have had some recent converts on the desirability of social impact assessments, such as Professor Alex Torpiano, Dean of the Faculty for the Built Environment at the University of Malta. Prof. Torpiano, in an opinion piece published by the Malta Independent this week, stressed that spatial planning in Malta needs a social-economic dimension. Unfortunately, I do not recollect the professor himself practising these beliefs as the leading architect in the MIDI and Cambridge projects on the Tignè peninsula,  a stone’s throw from Townsquare!

Investing in this bond issue is not another private decision: it will have an enormous impact on the community.

Responsibility for this ever-increasing environmental mess has to be shouldered by quite a few persons in Malta. Even the banks have a very basic responsibility – and not one to be shouldered just by the Directors: the shareholders should also take an interest before decisions are taken and not post-factum.

I understand that the Directors of APS Bank have already taken note of the recent  statements regarding the environment by  Archbishop Charles Scicluna. As such, it stands to reason that APS will (I hope) not be in any way associated with the financing process for the “Fawlty  Towers”.  However, there is no news as yet from the other banks, primarily from the major ones – ie Bank of Valletta and HSBC.

This is a defining moment in environmental action in Malta. It is time for those that matter to stand up to be counted – and the sooner the better.

published by the Malta Independent on Sunday – 21 August 2016

The professor who messed things up

Victor Axiaq

 

Professor Victor Axiaq, Chairman of the Environment and Resources Authority, is not at fault for being absent at a Planning Authority public meeting on the 4 August which discussed the Mrieħel and Sliema high-rise applications. By now everyone is aware that he had just been discharged from hospital and was instructed to rest for 15 days.

There were various officers of the Environment and Resources Authority present for the 4 August public meeting, yet instead of entrusting one of them with presenting the environment’s case on the Sliema high-rise, Professor Axiaq preferred to entrust Dr Timothy Gambin with a memorandum which Gambin opted to keep to himself.

There were various environmentalists, Sliema Local Councillors and civil society activists present for the public hearing. Those of us who were present for the public hearing presented the environment case and managed to convince six out of 13 Planning Authority members to vote against the proposed high-rise at TownSquare Sliema. Support for the environment case from a representative of the Environment and Resources Authority during the public hearing would have been most welcome. It could also have had a determining impact.  Yet it was not forthcoming notwithstanding the presence of a number of the Environment and Resources Authority employees at the public hearing.

The split of MEPA into two separate and distinct authorities, we were irresponsibly told by Government representatives some months ago, would ensure that the environmental issues would be more easily defended when considering land use planning applications. Yet prior to the split, an official of The Environment Protection Directorate would have addressed the public hearing. On the 4 August none were invited. The only person who was briefed to speak (Dr Timothy Gambin) opted instead to ignore his brief and instead openly supported the development proposal for a high-rise at TownSquare.

Professor Victor Axiaq, as Chairman of the Environment and Resources Authority, missed the opportunity to contribute to convince the majority of members of the Planning Authority due to his two basic mistakes. He entrusted his memorandum to another Planning Authority member (Dr Timothy Gambin) who had opposing views and hence had no interest in communicating Professor Axiaq’s memorandum on TownSquare to the Planning Authority. Professor Axiaq also failed to engage with his own staff at the Environment and Resources Authority as none of those present for the public hearing uttered a single word in support of the case against the high-rise proposal. The person sitting on the chair next to me, for example, preferred to communicate continuously with his laptop correcting with track changes some report he was working on. I have no idea why he even bothered to be present for the public hearing.

Unfortunately, Professor Axiaq, as chairman of the Environment and Resources Authority, messed up the first opportunity at which the input of the authority he leads could have made a substantial difference in the actual decision taken. It would have been much better if a proper decision was taken on the 4 August instead of subsequently considering whether to present an appeal, as this will be an uphill struggle as anyone with experience in these matters can confirm.  This could only have happened if Professor Axiaq had acted appropriately, which he unfortunately did not.

Next Wednesday, the Sliema Local Council will be convened for an extraordinary session in order to discuss the planning appeal relative to the TownSquare high-rise development permit. Environmental NGOs will also be meeting presently to plot the way forward and consider whether they too will appeal the decision.

Even the Environment and Resources Authority will be shortly considering whether to appeal. In view of the way in which Professor Axiaq handled the whole issue, the Sliema Local Council and the environmental NGOs would do well if they do not place any trust in the Authority led by Professor Victor Axiaq. They will avoid ending up in another mess.

After creating this mess, there is only one option left for Professor Victor Axiaq in my opinion. He should immediately resign from his post as chairman of the Environment and Resources Authority. The sooner he resigns the better.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday – 14 August 2016