Times of Malta, 27th November 2008, by Cynthia Busuttil

The government’s plans to build a new road in Għadira to stop the sandy beach’s erosion were not backed by any studies, Transport Minister Austin Gatt admitted yesterday.

The beach had receded after the existing road was widened in the 1980s and Dr Gatt insisted this was clear for all to see.

Plans for the new road have already been shot down by environmentalists but Dr Gatt voiced willingness to discuss the matter even though he insisted that doing nothing was not an option.

The €15 million project, around 80 per cent of which would be funded by the EU, would see the beach extended through the removal of the existing coast road. It would be replaced by another road running alongside the back of the Danish Village complex and the Għadira nature reserve, touching the Foresta 2000 project site. The planned road would form part of the proposed EU Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T project).

BirdLife Malta has already said the development would have an adverse impact on the nature reserve and the Foresta 2000 site. Danish Village fears the road would ruin the aesthetics of the low-rise tourist complex renowned for the way it blends with the environment.

However, during a press conference yesterday, Dr Gatt remarked that, while the site itself was priceless, both the Danish Village and the bird sanctuary were man-made.

Going through five different options, including doing nothing and losing EU funds, Dr Gatt said the plans provided a good chance of upgrading the beach. “We can have a phenomenal beach and are risking losing it because the sand dunes have been destroyed.”

Birdlife has noted that the sand dune system was actually located along just a small part of the existing road.

Former Transport Minister Jesmond Mugliett had also proposed upgrading the road, at an expense of something like €4.6 million, which Dr Gatt said would have solved the traffic problems but would have had a negative impact on the beach. Proposals to build a bridge allowing the beach to grow or build a new road with a tunnel had been shot down.

Explaining the fifth option, that of replacing the existing road with one passing from behind the Danish Village and the Għadira nature reserve, Dr Gatt said a trail wide enough for two cars to pass already existed in the area.

He said there was the disadvantage that this road passed through the garigue.

“We are not trying to hide this but at the end of the day it is an issue of balance between one option and the other. My appeal is for someone to tell us what to do but we cannot just say no,” he said, adding he was willing to go for any option but intervention was necessary.

Dr Gatt said it was not true that the road would cut through the Foresta 2000 site, although he quickly added that there could be some overlaps on an area which is still unplanted and there could be the possibility of having to remove “a row of trees”.

Questioned about the possibility that the road would mean the closure of the Danish Village, Dr Gatt said that if they decided to sell, they would find a buyer straight away.

Asked how he will assure people that Seabank Hotel will not take over part of the beach once the proposal brings the sandy area to its doorstep, Dr Gatt said concessions were not under his competence.

When asked why the project was a priority when so many other roads were in a disastrous state, Dr Gatt said the TEN-T funds for this proposed road could not be transferred to another project.

Din l-Art Ħelwa strongly objected to the building of the new road saying it would cut through “a protected and sensitive stretch of open countryside”, opening the way for further development.

It said the traffic situation was not serious enough to warrant “the destruction of protected countryside”.

On Tuesday, the Labour Party called on the government not to threaten the Foresta 2000 grove by building a road. Environment spokesman Leo Brincat acknowledged that the existing road needed to be upgraded but said the government had to be sensitive to habitats that were protected by European law.