Vigilo magazine – Issue 35 April 2009

Let us be clear at the outset that the decision to scrap the project to extend the underground museum of St John’s Co-Cathedral wsa the result of sheer political expediency. It owed nothing to either environmental or cultural heritage concerns.

The Prime Minister was faced with a dilemma. He could either, as the minister responsible for Mepa, allow the planning process to take its proper course or, in the face of an opportunistic Motion by the Leader of the Opposition, which the government was almost certain to lose, he could order that the project be dropped.

Haunted by the spectre of what happened to then Prime Minister Alfred Sant in 1998, when he allowed an essentially simple planning issue at Cottonera to become a matter of confidence in the government, Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi opted not to put the Motion to the test. Although he had, wisely, not made the issue one of confidence, he knew that even the loss of a straightforward vote on a matter of such prominence would lead to a weakening of his Administration’s authority.

He calculated – probably correctly – that the vote of one discredited and disaffected Nationalist Member of Parliament, together with the votes or abstentions of two or three other alienated Members in his own Party, would have repercussions on the authority and standing of his own government, which would probably dog his Administration for the rest of this legislature. He was not prepared to take that risk, even going so far as to drag in the Archbishop in support.

The result is that a project that may have allowed St John’s Co-Cathedral to extend its currently wholly inadequate museum will never see the light of day. We shall never know whether or not the project was technically or realistically feasible. Worse, a planning process that depends for its credibility and public confidence on adherence to procedures and systems – due process under the law – was short-circuited. The long-term consequences for our already battered planning law in Malta – which the Prime Minister personally promised to repair only a year ago – have yet to be assessed.

Much hysteria was generated by a well-coordinated, but not entirely honest, campaign about the impact of this project on the Co-Cathedral’s structure and future viability. Some of it reflected genuine concern by people such as the Heritage Advisory Committee and the Cultural Heritage Advisory Committee of Mepa who had an intuitive feel – no more, since they had neither the time nor the range of expertise to conduct a full study – for the possible risks of what was being proposed. Much of the rest, however, consisted of an emotional, knee-jerk reaction to a project, the scale and imagination of which went beyond the comfort zone to which they were accustomed. Their attitude was: “My mind is made up. Please don’t confuse me with the facts”. The way in which attacks on upstanding members of the Foundation were directed was a particularly odious feature of the campaign, letting some people’s desire to punish the members of the Foundation get in the way of clear thinking.

In the political sphere, which came ultimately to dominate the argument, it was motivated by personal pique, an antipathy for one member of the Foundation who has made many political enemies within his own Party, and the opportunism and manoeuvring for political advantage that is part and parcel of a vibrant two-party democracy.

The public debate was not helped by an inept presentation of the case by the Foundation of St John’s Co-Cathedral, which failed to foresee until too late the concerns which the project might elicit and was slow to react. To carry the public along with them on the purposes and merits of this ambitious project, the Foundation should have, at the very start, presented its case publicly and made it clear that it would be guided in its decision by the outcome of the Environmental Impact Assessment. Although it did eventually say this, it was too late to reverse the momentum of what had become a highly emotionally charged and unstoppable campaign.

For a proper analysis of a project of this magnitude and technical complexity, a comprehensive, independent, technical assessment, which can only be provided under planning law by an Environmental Impact Assessment, is absolutely vital. The EIA process is a planning tool that is now regarded as an integral component of sound decision-making in planning development. It provides an assessment of the effects a project is likely to have on the environment and examines every aspect of its technical feasibility. It is the process of identifying, predicting, evaluating and mitigating – yes, mitigating – the environmental or other relevant influences of development proposals before major decisions are made. How are we ever to know whether appropriate safeguards to the structural or archaeological features of St John’s Co-Cathedral would have been either necessary or possible?

EIAs are a natural and fundamental ally of all NGOs who care about the environment or natural heritage. When, as Lead Author of the think-tank report on ‘The Environmental Deficit: the Reform of Mepa’ a year ago, I invited all NGOs to give me their submissions for proposals to make improvements to the way Mepa conducts itself, I received one very strong submission from Flimkien ghall-Ambjent Ahjar (FAA) focusing solely on the importance of having in place a strong EIA process. I included this in its entirety in the think-tank’s report.

For all NGOs, the proper conduct of EIAs is crucial to the outcome of any major development project. Unless such projects are subjected to full technical analysis by experts, it becomes impossible to reach a considered verdict of the merits or shortcomings of any project. Balanced analysis, which by its nature should be disciplined, objective, professionals and impartial, should guide the final decisions reached by those charged with making them.

For Din l-Art Helwa this has invariably been a fundamental precept when considering any major project. Even though our instincts may occasionally have been against a particular project, we would always – as a matter of principle – seek discussions with the project developer to learn more about it to enable us to weigh up the issues carefully. But ultimately our decision would be guided by the outcome of the technical advice presented in the EIA.

When I was Executive President, we were faced in 2003/4 by the controversial Mnajdra landfill project. The public reaction was as voluble, verging on the hysterical, as the recent St John’s saga. The line we took then – as this time – was principled and ultimately justified by the outcome. It is an object lesson in what should happen in such cases – what should have happened in the case of the St John’s Co-Cathedral project.

When the government announced its intention to place an interim engineered landfill site at Mnajdra, we took the view that, until the results of a professionally conducted EIA were to hand, it would be premature to reach a judgement on the wisdom or otherwise of the decision. An objective and impartial decision could only be reached, we felt, when the technical, environmental, and, above all, the cultural heritage implications had been properly assessed and analysed, not before.

For Din l-Art Helwa, the key concern was the need to receive copper-bottomed assurances that the impact of the interim landfill on the World Heritage sites at Mnajdra and Hagar Qim would not adversely affect them or endanger them, then or in the future. We considered that the bottom line should be a conclusive assessment in the EIA that these outstanding World Heritage sites would not be harmed by what was proposed.

When the EIA was published, Din l-Art Helwa’s conclusion was unequivocal. Based on the evidence adduced by the EIA, it was clear that the siting of an engineered landfill so close to Mnajdra and Hagar Qim would involve an unacceptable risk. To rely merely upon “appropriate thresholds” being applied, when the stakes for world heritage were so high, would be to risk the possibility of imperilling our World Heritage sites. Such a risk should not be contemplated, we said, and it would be irresponsible of government to proceed with the proposal. We communicated those views to Cabinet and within a fortnight the government had abandoned the project.

Those who, during the recent St John’s Co-Cathedral project, sought to cast doubt on the efficacy of EIAs to change the policy outcome failed to appreciate not only that it had successfully been done before but, more importantly, that the only way to uphold our confidence in the integrity of the planning process is to follow it carefully and precisely. If we opt to pick and choose only those parts of the planning law that suit our agendas or purposes – no matter how well-intentioned or genuine our concerns – we risk pulling down the whole planning edifice and bringing it into disrepute. Cool analysis and adherence to systems laid down under planning law, not hysteria and emotion – or party-politics – should be the guiding light.