by Petra Caruana Dingli

The call for a master plan for tall buildings in the Paceville area may have been well-intentioned but it has backfired. Essentially, this plan has gathered nine large proposals from property developers and laid them out in 3-D format. The outcome is that these mega-construction projects will now be pre-endorsed before they even reach the planning board for a decision.

The Portomaso land reclamation proposal, unexpectedly included in this plan which was to focus on high-rise, exemplifies this perfectly. In 2013, the government had requested expressions of interest in land reclamation. Twenty-one proposals were submitted, and these were to be presented in a public exhibition and evaluated by a committee.

The exhibition and committee never materialised, and the submissions are still under wraps. In its Strategic Plan (SPED) of 2015, the government then stated that a coastal and marine spatial framework would consider land reclamation in Malta in general. In other words, the problems, impacts and potential for land reclamation were to be studied holistically.

One of these proposals has, however, now drifted away from the group and surfaced in the draft Paceville master plan. This renegade proposal is for a large land reclamation project at Portomaso. Planning Authority officers confirmed to the parliamentary committee last week that this was indeed one of the 21 submissions of 2013.

Through the Paceville master plan, the Portomaso developers will have their land reclamation proposal endorsed. They will thereby surely be granted a permit when they apply. This private project has no social purpose and is entirely unnecessary for the country as a whole, especially with the exaggerated amount of construction now earmarked for St George’s Bay.

The rest of the 2013 submissions have not been so fortunate – or at least, not yet. Perhaps others will eventually also get red carpet treatment. Now that the government has revealed one of them, it should be transparent about the rest too, or will it just randomly pull its favourite projects out of a hat?

Not that I want to promote land reclamation, but it seems unfair for just one project to be given this fast-track entry point through the Paceville master plan. The 2013 submissions should be presented to the public and studied as a whole, as was expected.

The Portomaso project will presumably now also be granted its projected 230,000m2 of developable floorspace from the seabed to destroy and develop. Thanks to recent legislation, the seabed is, however, now part of the public domain, so this area may have to be declassified by Parliament for this purpose.

The Planning Authority’s promotion of public domain spaces for the construction of yet more hotels, apartments and shops is shocking. It is an indicator of the mindset of our planners, if this were needed.

The master plan does not study the environmental or economic implications of the property-feeding frenzy being promoted. Its apparent intention is to endorse an existing construction-magnate wish list, enabling preferential treatment for certain big projects in the pipeline, with some traffic management pipe dreams thrown in.

It is certainly not a wish list for many residents, whose desires for the area are likely to be very different. A master plan should factor in the needs and vision of all the community, not just property investors and speculators.

But the Planning Authority has not even included photomontages from the nearby viewpoints which are most affected. Instead they happily announced that future tall buildings in Paceville will not be visible from Fort Ricasoli. This is interesting but obviously has less immediate relevance than the projected views as seen from Swieqi, St Andrew’s, Madliena, St Julian’s, Mensija, Balluta or Sliema.

At the parliamentary meeting, the Planning Authority was asked by an MP whether land reclamation at Portomaso might encourage speculation. The suppo­sedly expert planners replied by asking for the meaning of speculation.

Well, let’s help out and define it then. Property speculation means the buying or selling of property in the hope of making capital gains. Escalating prices encourage speculation. Excessive speculation, or accelerated price rises, can fuel a property price bubble. Using public assets, or protected areas, for private speculation also has other serious implications.

A leading estate agent recently expressed his concern, in an interview to the Times of Malta, that the property market is growing too fast. He rightly said that a bubble is being created by investors, such as “deve­lopers falling over each other to put up tower blocks in a number of locations”.

The Planning Authority does not seem particularly worried about this. Its senior officials even told the parliamentary committee that the Paceville master plan is a great idea because it will cause property prices in the area to escalate. In the context of a property market that is growing too fast, how is this a good thing? Frankly, they sounded more like short-sighted speculators than serious planners.

This misguided master plan aims to increase the population of the congested Paceville area from 2,000 to 9,000 within a few years. Imagine the additional cars, vans and buses. As Transport Minister Joe Mizzi has already implied, we will probably need a miracle to sort out the traffic.