The Times, Friday, September 30, 2011
The Portomaso development in St Julians has been a site of contestation ever since it was proposed for redevelopment in the former Hilton site, in the mid-1990s.
Back then, the developers proposed the replacement of the Hilton hotel with a new hotel, apartments, offices, a yacht marina and other development. High-rise development would characterise the project, a 17th century historic wall would be ripped through to give way to the yacht marina, and greenery in the area would be sacrificed to his majesty the economy. Posedonia meadows – the breeding grounds of fish – and traditional fishing practices would also be imperilled in the process.
The development was duly approved by the then Planning Authority, despite objections from residents, NGOs, Alternattiva Demokratika and experts, including the authority’s own Environmental Management Unit. This approval was the first in a series of high-rise mega-villages that would characterise various parts of Malta’s landscape.
Both Nationalist and Labour administrations gave their thumbs up to Portomaso. In the process, the entire area was leased by the state to the developers for a measly Lm191,000 until 2114, and eventually sold to the developers for Lm800,000 in 2006.
A ridiculous price, when compared to the going rate of apartments (of which there are hundreds) on site. I was one of the youth who formed a front against this development, amid various protests and a hunger strike in 1997 which was only stopped when then Ombudsman Joe Sammut decided to investigate our concerns. His investigation concluded that “the substantial changes to the original grant conditions, though they may not be in breach of the law, constitute a case of bad administration without due consideration to the national interest”.
Among other findings, the Ombudsman also found out that various agreements between the developers and the Planning Authority were carried out verbally rather than formally; that the government had lost a golden opportunity to retrieve public land; that the government “failed to use its negotiating powers to maximise the benefits to be derived from the deal”; and that with regard to the construction of the yacht marina and the excavation of the foreshore, “public accountability and prudence required reference of the concessions to Parliament”.
The Ombudsman also stated that “the major issue is whether the executive government can allow public land given on long-lease at a non-commercial rent for a specific purpose to be utilised for other purposes. In this case changes to the original conditions regulating the grant of land were so substantial, that in the public interest and in the interest of good administration, the government had a moral obligation to refer the proposed concessions for the scrutiny of Parliament”. The Ombudsman’s report proposed some recommendations concerning development and construction to the government.
Then Prime Minister Alfred Sant stated that the government would follow these recommendations, but did not state whether any measures would be taken with regards to the Hilton project. This was a small victory for the front, but all in all, the Portomaso conflict showed that the state and the developers formed a power bloc through which both stood to gain from the exploitation of land. The state gained through the generation of economic growth. Land developers legitimated the exploitation of land through the State Apparatus, which supported the development.
Whether such economic growth is everlasting remains to be seen, particularly when one-fourth of properties are vacant in Malta, possibly resulting in an economic bubble that can implode due to excess supply of properties in a context of endless speculation. Agencies such as the International Monetary Fund – surely not environmental militants – have warned Malta to be wary of overreliance on the real estate sector.
The Portomaso issue did not end in the late 1990s. During recent years further permits were given to the developers for further extensions and increase in storeys. Residents of the area have also been deprived of swings and a five-a-side football pitch, when the embellishment of the playing field resulted in a soulless site which is often closed to the public. In short, Qaliet and Paceville residents have been undergoing constant stress and discomfort due to overdevelopment in the area. The developers are now proposing an extra 46 apartments on an artificial lagoon between Spinola Road, the edge of the marina and the foreshore. This totally disregards the environment impact assessment of the project which had called for protection of the area in question. The developers were responsible for the conservation of the two species (Wedgefoot grass and Maltese sea camomile), one of which has already disappeared.
With a St Julians local council and a government which are usually hell bent on servility towards big business, one can only be sceptical as to how Mepa will react to the proposed development. Yet, there have been various instances when political pressure influenced the authority to act in the interest of residents and to favour sustainability over other concerns. It is for this reason that Alternattiva Demokratika is objecting to the Portomaso extension. Besides, the election of Green candidate Yvonne Arqueros Ebejer, in the St Julians local elections in a few months’ time will help ensure that residents’ quality of life is given priority over other interests.
(Note: Reference to the above: Briguglio, M. (1998 State/Power: Hiltonopoly (Unpublished dissertation). Malta: University of Malta, also available at www.michaelbriguglio.com)
Michael Briguglio, a sociologist, is chairman and spokesman for economy and finance, Alternattiva Demokratika - the Green party.