The Development and Planning Commission yesterday deferred an application for a major revamp of the cable car, citing concerns about the management of increased visitor numbers to the Upper Rock Nature Reserve.
MH Bland is seeking permission to demolish the existing upper and lower cable car stations and the three supporting towers. It hopes to replace them with a new station building, two towers and a new cable car system with cabins able to carry up to 80 passengers per trip instead of the current 30.
The application had already been deferred once and the company had adjusted its designs to address issues raised by the DPC relating to visual and environmental impact in a sensitive area.
But officials at the commission raised a number of additional queries yesterday, many of which focused on a visitor management plan submitted by MH Bland to explain how it would handle increased numbers of visitors to the Upper Rock Nature Reserve.
A report commissioned by MH Bland set out how the company would address issues such as litter management and the impact of visitors on conservation sites, including providing education and interpretation tools to help them understand the sensitivity of the reserve.
The DPC heard, however, that the company and the Department of the Environment disagreed on the numbers of people that could potentially walk into the reserve once the expanded infrastructure was in place, raising questions as to whether the measures to mitigate impact would prove sufficient.
According to government officials, the number of visitors walking into the reserve could potentially rise by up to 125,000 people a year compared to the company’s estimates of around 25,000.
James Montado, a lawyer with Isolas who was representing the company at yesterday’s meeting, said MH Bland’s plan hinged on broad principles able to accommodate fluctuations in visitor numbers, adding that this was “hardwired” into the strategy.
“The applicant is committed to delivering this project, which has been planned over many years and will deliver economic benefits to Gibraltar,” he said.
“This is not a plan scribbled on the back of an envelope,” he said, adding that MH Bland had “spent quite a lot of money” getting to this stage.
But the DPC, which was dealing with a full planning application, said the concerns had to be properly addressed before it could take a decision.
“We are talking about possibly another 100,000 visitors and we cannot kick that into the future, we have to deal with this now,” said Dr John Cortes, the Minister for Environment and Education, who sits on the commission.
Dr Cortes highlighted the importance of the Upper Rock Nature Reserve and added: “We have to get this right.”
Paul Origo, the Town Planner, said too that it was vital to ensure a balance between the interests of all the stakeholders in the Upper Rock Nature Reserve, “otherwise it’s the clash of the titans”.
The DPC meeting was held in a packed Charles Hunt Room in the John Mackintosh Hall, where many representatives of the Gibraltar Taxi Association had gathered to hear the deliberations.
The GTA has expressed serious concerns about the project and its legal representative, Daniel Feetham, QC, had been due to address the session yesterday to set out the objections.
In the event, his submission postponed after the DPC deferred its decision.
After the meeting, however, Mr Feetham and the GTA’s legal team, also comprised of Darren Martinez and Jeremy Requena, outlined the their client’s position in a statement to the press.
“We welcome the intervention of the Minister for the Environment and, in particular, his comments that the application needs conducted with rigor and that the DPC needs to get this right,” they said.
“The central issue for the DPC under both the Gibraltar Development Plan and the Nature Protection Act is whether the proposed project has an adverse impact on the environment of the nature reserve.”
“If there is an adverse impact after taking into account proposed mitigation measures, then as a matter of law, the application should be refused.”
“Increasing the number of potential visitors from 80 an hour to 1,150 an hour is a huge increase in potential walkers in a very limited space with limited roads in an area designated and protected site of Community Importance under the Habitats Directive.”
They also raised concern about the size of the new proposed upper station, the impact of other infrastructure including the support towers and the potential for sewage problems as a result of increased visitor numbers.
They described the visitor management plan as “woefully inadequate” and said that even with a better plan, the overall negative impact of the scheme could not be avoided in the GTA’s view.
“In other words, no matter how much you mitigate there will be a negative impact and if that is so, then as a matter of law the application cannot be granted,” they said.