Friday, August 5, 2016

Post-Townsquare Reflections

Michael Briguglio Malta Today 8 August 2016 

Yesterday was a sad day for my hometown Sliema: The Townsquare 38-storey highrise project was approved by the Planning Authority.  

It was a close call, as 6 board members (out of 13 who were present) voted against. And this included PA Chairman Vince Cassar, who I know as a  man of integrity. Victor Axiak, the representative of the Environment and Resources Authority was absent due to illness.  The Nationalist Party representative Ryan Callus also voted against, unlike Labour's representative Joe Sammut. 

Again, I know Callus to be an upright and honest politician, and from what I saw and sensed, he showed alot of courage in voting the way he did. 

The Sliema Local Council - of which I am a member on behalf of the Greens - objected to this proposal, through its PN-led majority, and notwithstanding the total silence from Labour councillors. Needless to say, environmental NGOs, AD and the newly-formed PD were also objecting to this proposal.

But environmental campaigns are never simply characterized by the final PA meeting. And neither are they simply decided on the grounds of lack or insufficient analysis, though Townsquare had a surplus of this.

Empirical sociological, anthropological and political research and analyses on environmental campaigns in Malta show that there are a plurality of factors which have an effect on environmental outcomes. 

These include lobbying, mobilization through protest and media sensitization, official and unofficial meetings, and political/social movement alliances. When alliances involve ENGOs, local councils and at least 2 political parties (big+big or big+small), these are usually more predisposed to have an impact. Impacts can vary from victories (e.g. Front Kontra l-Golf Kors; Munxar, Cement Plant; Wied Ghomor and many others in between) to huge mobilization and partial impacts (e.g. Save Zonqor). When both major parties do not support a campaign, it becomes very difficult to obtain victory (the referendum on hunting being a case in point).

In the case of Townsquare, what struck me most was the PN strategy, which worked in the hands of the Gasan developers and the Labour Government. 

Indeed, the PN leadership was conspicuous by its silence on this issue - and here we are speaking of Tigne', a PN stronghold  in blue Sliema.  Whether the silence was intentional or cynical is something that can never be proven.

If it really paid heed to Sliema residents above developers' proposals, and if it really wanted the project to be defeated, the PN leadership could and should have mobilized its supporters in the run up to the PA meeting, in support of the local council and emvironmentalists. But it did not. 

My hunch is that Simon Busuttil will try to bank on residents' anger during excavation and construction. If this is the case, we will have a clear case of poor judgement, cynical politics, and of speaking too late in the day. 

Townsquare and Mriehel are just the beginning in a series of highrise developments in Malta. And this takes us to the political economy of the environment. As Portomaso had shown us back in 1998, and as has been confirmed so many times since then, a symbiotic relationship exists between the state and big developers.

Developers provide economic growth and other incentives; The State provides policy and operational support. This is done at the expense of the environment and people's quality of life. 

Who said the environment is not political? 

Picture: Pre-Townsquare Sliema

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