Another Benidorm?

Nearly a year ago in this column I was fretting about the latest project to go before the Development and Planning Commission. How silly of me. The proposed multi-purpose building at Devil’s Tongue was to have a mere 15 floors. Positively dwarfed by what’s planned at Hassan Centenary Terraces. “Standing tall on the east side of Gibraltar”, boasts the website. Not half.

The six towers that between them will contain 665 flats will be of up to 35 storeys and rise to 110 metres. That’s more than double the height of the Tower Blocks in Glacis. I know we need affordable housing: the high level of interest from prospective purchasers proves it. But must they be packed in like sardines?

Three of Gibraltar’s most highly regarded NGOs are so worried that they took the unusual step of issuing a joint statement to outline their concerns. The Ornithological and Natural History Society, the Heritage Trust and the Environmental Safety Group complained that: “such tall buildings will create a precedent for the remaining, major plot awaiting development on the east side, creating a kind of Benidorm effect”. “The impact on beach users”, they added, “has not been assessed adequately”. And “the scale of these buildings, so close to the north face of the Rock and to the beach, will have a negative visual impact on our iconic landscape”.

What’s interesting is that these three organisations are all represented on the DPC. Given their strong objections, logic dictates that they would have voted against the scheme had they had an opportunity to do so. But as they point out: “Government projects are still not subjected to a vote. Thus, this project is presented (to the DPC) for comment, but not permission”.

Only when the new Town Planning Act is adopted will the government require the Commission’s approval before carrying out any development. The Act was passed and published in the Gazette last August, fully six months ago, but has still not come into effect. When will it? I asked. “When all necessary administrative and technical requirements are in place”, came the reply from Number Six Convent Place.

Which could be tomorrow, next year or never.

Let’s see how many more Hassan Centenary Terraces are sanctioned before government projects are finally reined in.

 

FONNAFLY FAUX PAS FIXED

Credit to Fonnafly, the Norwegian company due to start helicopter tours around Gibraltar in May. When I wrote this article for the Gibraltar Chronicle I berated them for describing  the Rock on their website as “a crown colony since 1830”. Happily this has been rectified and Gibraltar is now correctly referred to as a British Overseas Territory. Well done chaps!

 

 

 

Joining the Club

I declare an interest: I’ve just joined the board of trustees of Clubhouse Gibraltar. My only interest, mind, and it’s shared I’m sure by the other trustees, staff and members, is that this selfless organisation continues to flourish, as it provides ever-growing support to members of our community with mental health issues. The next target is new premises.

After operating for a couple of years from Toc H, where the dampness was affecting people’s health, Clubhouse were allocated “temporary” premises in Wellington Front in September 2013. It was supposed to be for one year only, to free them from what CEO Emily Adamberry Olivero describes as the “terrible conditions” they were working under, but five years on they’re still there. Plans to accommodate them in Rosia Road never materialised despite the keys to the intended premises having been handed over by the government and the Clubhouse logo being prominently displayed at the site.

This time though, it seems the move is actually going to happen. At the end of 2016 Clubhouse were told their permanent home would be at 304a Main Street, where the Gladys Perez centre is now, a stone’s throw from the residence of their recently appointed patron, Governor of Gibraltar Ed Davis. The Development and Planning Commission approved the plans, and GJBS is poised to carry out the necessary works. As far as the charity is concerned, the sooner it happens the better: with 160 current members Clubhouse badly needs more space. While the government has said it will meet the construction costs, extra funds are needed for things like furniture and equipment and to expand the services offered. The new premises will have a working kitchen and cafeteria, for instance.

One local entrepreneur has already dug deep into his pockets. Jimmy Attias has handed Clubhouse a cheque for £30,000 – the largest single private donation the charity has ever received. (Mr Attias has also generously donated £30,000 to Gibsams). At the presentation he urged others to follow his lead; the business community will soon have an opportunity to do so. Clubhouse are organising a fund raising Gala Dinner at the Sunborn Hotel in June, and will be asking companies to support the event, which will include an auction and a guest speaker.

After agreeing to become a trustee I was given an initial briefing by Emily and her team. I was bowled over by their dedication, and everything they do. Did you know that besides preparing and training members to get a job through their work-ordered day programme, they also provide after-hours support for carers and people who want to talk about depression and anxiety? Organise outings both locally and across the border? Produce a monthly, members-only newsletter? Run mental health first aid courses? They even have a reach-out programme to visit people at home, in prison or in hospital.

In a testimonial video on their website the Governor describes Clubhouse Gibraltar as a “compelling and inspiring example of the inclusive and mutually-supporting Gibraltarian community that goes out of its way every day to look after people in need”. I wholeheartedly agree. It provides an invaluable service, worthy of everyone’s support.

Be a good little colony and co-operate

There we have it. Spain wants to put the clock back and get the world at large, or at least the European Union, to start calling Gibraltar a colony again.

It would be easy to dismiss as sour grapes Madrid’s latest move, which would see a proposed EU law on visa-free travel classify Gibraltar as “a colony of the British Crown”: an act of petulance by Pedro Sánchez after he failed to secure a clause in the Brexit withdrawal agreement that would have enabled him to veto the application of any future UK/EU trade agreement to Gibraltar.

But there’s probably more to it than that.

According to reports, the Spanish government would expect the “colony” epithet to be used in all EU legislation regarding the UK after Brexit. So what, you might say? Sticks and stones and all that. But our chief minister immediately identified a potential long-term danger: if people think of Gibraltar as a colony they’ll be more likely to concur with Spain that the Rock should be decolonised in accordance with the principle of territorial integrity rather than going down the route of respecting the right to self-determination of its inhabitants.

I find it ironic though not surprising that even as Spain continues to do all it can to further its sovereignty ambitions, Gibraltar is expected to act as a good neighbour and co-operate. Witness the withdrawal agreement’s Gibraltar protocol and its associated memoranda of understanding.

These documents would oblige our government, among other things, to reduce the retail price of tobacco products, which would be linked with the price of equivalent products in Spain, and adopt a tax system aimed at “preventing fraudulent activities”, not just in respect of tobacco but alcohol and petrol as well. Gibraltar would be required to “achieve full transparency in tax matters”, therefore implicitly acknowledging some degree of opacity. And a committee with Madrid central government representation would be appointed to assess the environmental impact of things like (surprise, surprise) land reclamation and bunkering. It would also discuss “fishing activities”.

As I was writing this column I stumbled upon a Financial Times article from last September. It suggested that whereas it was envisaged that the withdrawal agreement would contain protocols on Northern Ireland and Cyprus there were no plans for one on Gibraltar. That idea was mooted by the Spanish government and went “beyond the original plans of EU negotiators”.

Small wonder that Spain is now anxious that the protocol and memoranda should survive a withdrawal agreement rejection, with foreign minister Josep Borrell claiming that even if Britain leaves the EU without a deal, agreements over Gibraltar would remain in place. Fabian Picardo has rejected this view insisting that without a withdrawal agreement the MoUs are not legally effective, but in these uncertain times no one can say for certain what would happen. What’s more, if the EU agrees to reopen negotiations on the Irish backstop Madrid may well demand that it do likewise over Gibraltar.

I remain convinced that the best outcome for us is that MPs stick to their guns and reject Theresa May’s deal each time she submits it to a vote in the Commons. That way we may end up with a second referendum and a vote to remain in the EU, which would render the Gibraltar protocol and everything else academic.

Gibraltar 100 years hence

Were you surprised that the UK voted to leave the European Union in the Brexit referendum? You really shouldn’t have been: it was anticipated a whopping 130 years ago!

At least, that’s one possible interpretation of an entry for a competition in 1888 to imagine what England would be like a century into the future. As rediscovered by Victorian pop-culture historian Dr Bob Nicholson, a long-defunct magazine called Answers asked its readers to foretell “What England will be like a Hundred Years hence?”

One crystal-ball gazer submitted the following:

“England will by her very policy of national aggrandisement slowly sink into the condition of a second-rate power (somewhat like Sweden of the present day), and her fall will in the end be accelerated by those whom she has in former years befriended. In the year 1988 she will hold no weight in the Councils of Europe”.

 It didn’t win, and the prediction is out by some three decades, but the entry would surely have been among the front-runners if the magazine could only have known how eerily prescient it was.

Many of the ideas floated were fanciful and never came to pass. “Ships, houses, railway lines and carriages are made of … unbreakable, indestructible paper”, for instance. Or, a “Continuous railway from London to Pekin though Siberia”.

But others were surprisingly accurate.

“Electricity will take the place of gas and coal in dwellings”, wrote one. (Thomas Edison’s light bulb had been around less than ten years). While another predicted that “Armies shall meet in the air”. (They did in 1914 with the outbreak of the Great War).

My favourite was the suggestion that “invasion is made impossible by the intellectual, self-acting pyro-aqua vengeance bombs”. I’m not sure what the author was on, but laudanum (a mixture of alcohol and opium) was extremely popular in Victorian England.

I wonder: might our editor be inspired to emulate Answers magazine and invite Chronicle readers to share their vision of the Rock in 100 years’ time?

Here’s my advance entry:

Our political status is settled. Following the secession of Catalonia, the return of Ceuta and Melilla to Morocco and the creation of an independent Basque nation, Spain lost the appetite to continue to press its sovereignty claim and agreed to recognise Gibraltar’s decolonisation through the principle of self-determination. We’ve been removed from the list of non-self-governing territories of the United Nations but it means little in practice, since that ineffectual organisation collapsed soon afterwards.

In contrast with the UN the European Union is going from strength to strength, bolstered by the UK’s decision to stay in after all and its enlargement to 40 members. Gibraltar benefitted greatly from continuing EU membership. Our finance centre ranks among the top five in the world and income from tourism is at an all-time high, thanks in no small measure to the decision of leading cruise companies to choose Gibraltar as their home port for Mediterranean cruises.

A new era of rapprochement has seen the dismantling of the Gibraltar-La Línea frontier and relations with our nearest neighbour are vastly improved. Forty thousand Campo residents earn their living in Gibraltar and many local businesses have expanded across the border. Spanish is again being widely spoken by Gibraltarians, who increasingly shunned it during the years that Madrid’s claim to our land endured.

One blot on the horizon, or several to be more accurate, is the proliferation of cheap, 3D-printed high-rise buildings to create office space and accommodation for an ever-increasing workforce and resident population. But on the plus side the advent of the flying car has eliminated the Rock’s critical traffic, parking and congestion problem. Not to mention the need for cycle lanes.