Wednesday, May 04, 2005

War of Words as Funicular issue approaches D-Day

The war of words over the controversial Funicular Project intensified yesterday as campaigners delivered a petition with 7,350 signatures opposing the development to Chief Minister Peter Caruana.

The groups behind the petition – which include the Gibraltar Heritage Trust, the Gibraltar Ornithological and Natural History Society (GONHS) and the Environmental Safety Group – said it illustrated the strength of public feeling against the project.

The petition was handed in to No 6 ahead of today’s meeting of the Development and Planning Commission [DPC], which is expected to discuss the project.

It is possible that the commission could reach a decision on granting what is known as ‘outline planning consent’ during the course of today’s discussions.

If it obtains this initial approval, the company behind the scheme, 21st Century Rock, will be able to move to the next stage of what will inevitably prove to be a lengthy and complex planning process. But outline planning consent, if approved, does not in itself represent a green light for the funicular project.

It would, however, enable the developer to proceed with various planning aspects relating to the project, including tandem discussions with both the Gibraltar Government and the Ministry of Defence on the final terms of any land lease.

Opponents of the project yesterday vowed to continue with their campaign whatever the outcome of today’s meeting.

Janet Howitt, spokeswoman for the Environmental Safety Group, said the Funicular Project was in breach of local nature and heritage regulations and said she would be “utterly shocked” if it passed the first planning hurdle.

“Apart from the risk of safety to the community… we cannot understand how it’s even being considered because of this flagrant breach of the existing [regulations] which prohibit commercial development of this nature in the Upper Rock.”

She added that the petition proved that a wide cross-section of the local community was strongly opposed to the development.

Joe Desoisa, on behalf of the Gibraltar Heritage Trust, added:

“If they get outline planning permission, it’s the beginning of a long haul. We will contest it.”

He voiced numerous doubts and questions about the project’s impact and accused 21st Century Rock of employing a “devious” strategy. “Time and again they’ve distorted the truth,” Mr Desoisa said.

The Chief Minister has agreed to meet with the campaigners to hear their grievances personally, though a date for the meeting has yet to be fixed.

Mr Caruana, together with other government ministers, was recently given a detailed briefing on the project by the developer and its consultants, covering technical, heritage and environmental issues arising from the scheme. Ultimately, the developer will not be able to proceed without approval from the government.

Brian Francis, development consultant and project coordinator on the Funicular Project, was yesterday unfazed by the petition, though he was clearly exasperated with what he termed the “misinformation” presented by opponents. He said the developer had fully met its obligation to provide public information on the project, adding that it had also complied promptly with all of the DPC’s requests for additional information on its application.

“It’s become a very passionate argument,” Mr Francis said, adding that the company had nothing more to say on the controversy at this stage.

On the possibility of the DPC granting outline planning consent, he emphasised that this was simply one step in a long process and that it would probably come with significant caveats attached.

“If consent is given, it is very likely to have conditions imposed,” he said.

Related Links:

Gibraltar News Online Poll gives a resounding 'No' to proposed Funicular Project

Funicular Project Photomontage


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