Sunday Times of Malta, 30 November 2008, by Ivan Camilleri in Brussels

The recent decision taken by the government to include the entire Ta’ Ċenċ plateau under EU environmental protection laws may not be enough to stop development in the area.

The Sunday Times understands that the Ta’ Ċenċ owners have submitted fresh plans to the Malta Environment and Planning Authority. European Commission sources confirmed that development may still be permitted “as long as the proposed development is sustainable and respects the EU’s Habitat and Birds Directives”.

The sources said that the development was discussed during a meeting with the Ta’ Ċenċ developers in Brussels last June. New plans shown to EU officials – a drastically scaled-down version of the original 2006 designs – were then formally submitted to Mepa.

The application now includes the extension and refurbishment of the five-star Ta’ Ċenċ Hotel, the development of a new winter wing with 50 new suites, the construction of 24 residential units to the north of the hotel, a heritage park occupying 60 per cent of the area and an interpretation centre.

When contacted, the Ta’ Ċenċ owners said they did not wish to comment on the new plans. However, it seems that following their meetings in Brussels the owners are more optimistic that Mepa will give the green light to this development in the near future, possibly by June.

The change in the designation of Ta’ Ċenċ under the EU’s Natura 2000 network was made after protests from environmental lobbies and the start of European Commission infringement procedures against Malta.

Brussels had issued a warning to the government after its list of environmental sites under the Natura 2000 network, submitted in 2006, failed to include significant parts of Ta’ Ċenċ.

The pro-environmental lobby applauded the recent decision to upgrade the protection of the entire Ta’ Ċenċ site, assuming that no development will now take place.

However, according to Mepa this will not necessarily be the case.

Asked about the possibility of development under this new protective scenario, a Mepa spokesman said: “The operational principle within the Natura 2000 network is sustainability. The recent designation does not per se introduce new requirements. Thus, only developments that do not endanger the integrity of the site may be considered, and this is established by an appropriate assessment.”

The spokesman added that in the Ta’ Ċenċ case, the developer had already been requested to conduct an appropriate assessment in view of the designation of the site within the Natura 2000 network and to update the Environmental Impact Assessment following his submission of fresh plans.