Jose Herrera had it coming. The environment minister yesterday evening joined Pembroke residents and environmentalists in a protest at a field that Chiswick wants to develop into a new primary school, his moment in the sun (literally, it was boiling) and a chance to truly prove his pro-environmental commitment.
“I came here to make a statement in favour of Pembroke’s residents and in favour of protecting the environment,” he said.
Make a statement he certainly did, but unfortunately for him it was also a statement that he seems to view some environmental controversies as more equal than others – most conspicuous of which was his lack of resistance to plans by a Jordanian development company to build the private American University of Malta at Żonqor Point.
The similarities between the two cases are striking – a private company plans to build a school on virgin land by the sea while promising that their projects will actually benefit the environment. If anything, the Żonqor case is more scandalous given that the land falls outside the development zones (the Pembroke site does not) and the Jordanian company Sadeen had actually praised Prime Minister Joseph Muscat for only taking a minute to convince them to build in Malta.
Yet while Herrera is now scandalised at the Pembroke development plans, he has defended the Żonqor project on the grounds that part of the site footprint is already built up and part of it has no ecological importance.
This glaring contradiction was not lost amongst journalists present at the protest, who instantly pounced onto Herrera to ask him why he chose to resist the new Chiswick school but not the Żonqor university.
His response? “I was not the environment minister back then. From here on out, I will always make a public statement on environmental issues that I feel warrant me to speak out.”
Journalists kept pressing Herrera, prompting him to note that he himself had proposed the Nwadar Park by Żonqor as a site to be declared as public domain, as though that were any compensation for the take-up of land by the sea by the American University. He then reverted to his fall-back catchphrase of critics of development suffering from a “false sense of nostalgia”.
“There were fewer buildings in the 30s and 40s, but were people living better lives back then? “We need to compromise and work together towards what’s sustainable,” he said, as an activist from Movement Graffiti shouted out that he was born in the 1980s and not the 1930s.
So why does he consider the Żonqor project sustainable but the Pembroke one unsustainable? Lovin Malta asked him who should get to decide which projects are sustainable and which one aren’t, to which he responded: “We get to decide together, such as through pressure and lobbying, what is sustainable and what isn’t.”
Of course, this completely skirted the fact that the Żonqor university had actually been subject to the largest environmental protest in Malta’s history back in 2015, which prompted a “compromise” announcement from Joseph Muscat that the American University will not be fully sited at Żonqor but rather split between there and Dock 1 in Cospicua.
Herrera wasn’t the only Labour official who stuck his neck out to oppose Chiswick’s planned new school. Amongst the 300 or so residents at yesterday’s protest was Labour’s own CEO Gino Cauchi and his daughter Paula Cauchi, a former One journalist who now works as a ministry spokesperson. Although they were attending the protest as residents, Paula Cauchi quickly snapped into work mode as soon as she saw journalists starting to question Herrera, holding a mike to the minister’s mouth and urging journalists to save their questions until after the event.
The Pembroke controversy was also pounced upon by Labour MP Glenn Bedingfield, who published on his blog an anonymous guest post stating that the lack of resistance to the Chiswick plans by “those environmental types” betrayed their hypocrisy.
The blog didn’t post this out, but it is worth noting that the architecture firm designing the new Chiswick school is the London-based Mizzi Studio, owned by Jonathan Mizzi, the son of former Din l-Art Helwa president Simone Mizzi, who had strongly criticised the Żonqor university.
Bedingfield’s blogpost also sought to turn the Chiswick issue into a class war, accusing the Mangion and Mizzi families behind the project of being “stalwarts of the establishment” and acting astounded that such a rich family is now also after government-owned land in Pembroke.
Of course, Glenn Bedingfield had no such criticism to offer when the Labour government offered government-owned land at Żonqor Point to the wealthy Sadeen developers.
So is the Chiswick school story just another example of how politicians are very selective when it comes to which environmental causes they latch onto?
Despite the Nationalist Party having portrayed themselves as a pro-environment party ever since the Żonqor controversy erupted, not a single PN MP or leadership candidate was present at the protest. Partit Demokratiku leader Marlene Farrugia was conspicuous by her absence, but it later turned out that she was abroad.
The PN today demanded that the government come clean on its intentions for the Pembroke land and accused it of taking the village’s residents for a ride.
“A serious government cannot have the education minister offering public land for development without any consultation and the environment minister making it out as though he opposes this same development,” the PN’s environment spokesman Karol Aquilina said.
“A serious government would have taken well thought-out decisions as a whole in the national interest and in the interest of Pembroke residents, and not have two ministers contradicting each other as though they weren’t both members of the same government.”