WATCH: Fiery Gżira Mayor Lambasts Manoel Island Project Critics For Spreading False Hope

"MIDI has a right to build and it's false to suggest the government can rescind the contract"

The future of Manoel Island will be clearer tomorrow, when the Planning Authority is set to decide on a revised masterplan to convert the island into a luxury village.

The board meeting could well see Gżira mayor Conrad Borg Manche vote in favour of a project that he had so vehemently criticised to the point where he had joined activists as they teared down the gates to Manoel Island.

Over 6,000 people have signed a petition urging the government to turn the island into a woodland park, but Borg Manche has warned this campaign is built on false hope and pure misinformation.

“It’s important to note that MIDI has a right to build and it’s false to state that the government can rescind the contract,” Borg Manche said in an interview with Lovin Malta. “When I was interviewed in 2016, I said that I would like to turn Manoel Island into a park. Of course I would. I live there, I used to go there everyday as a kid and I know what value it has to the people of Gżira and all Malta. That was my opinion but obviously this is not about my opinion or anyone’s opinion and one has to see the facts.”

The facts in this case are that MIDI was given a concession back in the 90s for the development of both Manoel Island and Tigne Point, that a permit for the development of Manoel Island was issued in 1999 and that this impending development is enshrined in the Maltese local plans.

MIDI’s concession also obliges it to complete the Manoel Island project by 2023, after which daily fines will be issued and the entire contract, including the Tigne half, ripped up after three years.

“I’ve looked at all the contracts and parliamentary debates and found out that MIDI has a legal right to build in certain areas,” Borg Manche said. “If I kept on insisting that I want it turned into a park, they would have just ignored me and done whatever they wanted. In my position as mayor, to safeguard Manoel Island, I therefore had no other option but to deal with what was going to be built and not keep on saying the same thing and get ignored.”

“Imagine I were to ask for your home contract, rip it up and tell you to get out. Would you accept?”

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Conrad Borg Manche speaks to the press after Manoel Island project in 2016

To compound the issue, MIDI is a publicly listed company with several shareholders, meaning any government seizure of the contract will likely come at a risk to Malta’s economy and investment reputation.

“It would have huge ripple effects on the Maltese reputation and everything,” Borg Manche said. “For me, it would have made the nicest park but there are these issues, and as mayor I have to be pragmatic and realistic and delve into these details, not just say I want a public park and discard everything else.”

Borg Manche, along with environmental lawyer Claire Bonello, last year set up the Manoel Island Foundation, which signed a contract with MIDI through which it will scrutinise the development.

And while the revised masterplan includes 600 residence units, 100 more than were envisaged in the original deal, it also comes along with a number of concessions won by the Manoel Island Foundation.

MIDI has committed itself to setting up designated swimming zones, ensuring no commercial activity in the public park and foreshore and limiting the maximum building height from a maximum of five to four storeys. Notably, Fort Manoel will not be converted into a hotel as had originally been planned, but rather a cultural centre. The foundation has a legal right to sue MIDI if the latter breaches this contract.

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“MIDI knew they had until 2023 to finish the project and after receiving so much bad publicity they wanted to speak to us to find a solution,” Borg Manche said, expressing confidence that the deal will ensure Manoel Island doesn’t suffer the same fate as Tigne.

The Gżira mayor is also taking credit for a recent drastic increase in planning gains, compensation paid to the PA by developers of major projects which is then distributed to the impacted councils.

“When there was an application for the extension of the 14 East Tower, they told me that the planning gain would be €35,000 and that this was calculated at a rate of €4.66 per square metre,” he recounted. “I told them LM (Lira Maltin) 2 was a joke for all the inconvenience the tower would cause and that I wouldn’t tell residents we only managed to obtain €35,000 for such a massive tower.”

After discussions, the national planning gain was increased to €25 per square metre, which means the planning gain for the Manoel Island project has increased from €375,000 to just under €2 million, money the council will use to build new civic amenities and a new slipway for fishermen to compensate for the present one that has no place in the Manoel Island project.

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Borg Manche had harsh words for Inħobbu l-Gżira, a pressure group that was formed earlier this year to oppose the Manoel Island project and lobby for it to be turned into a woodland park.

“These people never approached me during all the protest and consultation,” he said. “I went to support one of them at a planning board meeting where he was opposing tables and chairs on the pavement, but he never told me he had concerns about Manoel Island. If I have a mayor who is forceful with these people [MIDI], the logical thing would have been to go to him not to try and do it myself, right?”

“I then started questioning who these people are and what their real motivations are. If they bought property on the front, they would have known something was going to happen [on Manoel Island] but maybe they didn’t think it would actually happen. Sorry, but you should do your homework before buying your property.”

Indeed, he said he suspects the entire movement was born out of fear by people living on the Gżira front that the value of their property will take a hit once the Manoel Island apartments go up and obstruct the view of Marsamxett Harbour and Valletta from their homes.

“They’re dishing out misinformation and if you ask me why, I would suggest they want to provoke me,” he said. “They say MIDI will build buildings of up to 29 metres. Where will they build that much? Thats misinformation. Did they expect me to stay fighting them on Facebook?”

“I did that at the beginning of the protest but it’s tiring because you say things and people don’t understand and you keep on repeating yourself. I’m a democratic person and will leave people to say what they want to say, but afterwards I will say the truth and what I need to say.”

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Conrad Borg Manche dismissed the above picture as misinformation

He also dismissed ‘photomontages’ of the project which went viral on social media, jokingly stating that a child must have drawn them.

“It’s easy to draw boxes ten floors high and put the picture it out there but thats not the truth,” he said. “What hurts me is that they never spoke to me though.”

“Even people like [independent MEP candidate and former Alternattiva Demokratika leader] Arnold Cassola… he used to come to all the protests so that people could see him there but he never asked me if I could find some time to discuss his ideas. However, he’d come to the protests to ride the bandwagon of others, because there are some people in this country who are one expert at riding the bandwagon.”

Borg Manche said he is passionately pro-environment, so much so that he was seriously consider moving from Malta to a greener country before he was elected mayor in 2015.

“I was the only one who took the fight to [MIDI]. Who else did? [Michael] Briguglio? No one, only me. My own party was in government but that’s what a real mayor does. I’m here for the people, not to get publicity or to jump on other people’s bandwagons.”

READ NEXT: In An Age Of Maltese Armchair Activism, Do Petitions Actually Work?

Written By

Tim Diacono

Tim Diacono tends to clam up when asked to describe himself. You can contact him on [email protected]

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