[ANALYSIS] PN green proposals: the firm, the vague and the unmentioned

The Nationalist Party’s new environmental policy contains a number of binding commitments, some vague ones which leave leeway for interpretation and a few remarkable omissions. How far has the PN gone in courting the green vote, James Debono asks

James Debono
26 January 2017, 9:44am
PN leader Simon Busuttil’s commitment on environmental issues has echoes of Labour’s focus on civil liberties before the 2013 election
PN leader Simon Busuttil’s commitment on environmental issues has echoes of Labour’s focus on civil liberties before the 2013 election
The PN’s newly launched environmental policy is not the usual run of the mill declaration of vague principles normally found in pre-electoral policy documents. Rather than leaving room for post electoral interpretation, some proposals included in the document – such as that excluding land reclamation for real estate purposes and  the requirement of a two-thirds parliamentary majority for any major ODZ development – do clip the wings of a future Nationalist government. On these issues civil society has been given enough rope to hang a future PN government should it renege on these clear pledges.  

This indicates that the PN is as committed to environmental issues in the same way that Labour was to civil liberties before the 2013 election, albeit in this case the PN risks alienating traditional backers in the construction lobby.

But as often happens the devil is in the detail and some of the proposed policies, even those which are apparently cast in stone, give a future PN government some room for manoeuvre. Moreover some hot potato topics such as hunting and trapping and the Armier and other boathouses are completely avoided. Yet on balance the document, if reiterated in the final electoral manifesto, goes a long way in strengthening the party’s green credentials.

Cast in stone proposals

Cast in stone is the PN’s proposal to require a two-thirds majority in parliament for major projects of national importance, whether proposed by the public or private sector.

The PN has also heeded criticism made by NGOs in June when the proposal was first mooted. For while welcoming an extra layer of parliamentary scrutiny, NGOs were wary of parliament overruling planning experts.

The PN has now clarified that any such proposals would have first to go through the normal planning procedures in the Planning Authority. This means that parliament will not be substituting planning experts but will serve as an additional level of scrutiny.

Only in the case of a positive recommendation by the PA would a project be submitted to parliament for approval and in such cases such a project would require a two-thirds majority.  

This means that parliament would not be in a position to approve projects which were heading for a refusal by the PA as suggested by the first draft.  

Moreover the policy suggests that the two-thirds vote in parliament will be final. Back in June the PN had proposed that after two consecutive failures in efforts to garner a two-thirds majority, a simple majority in a final third vote would suffice. The policy as proposed now makes no reference to approval by a simple majority.

One of the risks of such a policy is that of a gridlock over a national project, such as a sewage treatment plant, with the opposition using this clause to obstruct the government.  

In concrete terms the PN is limiting its own power in government by giving the opposition a veto on ODZ projects which have already been approved by the PA. 

But the proposal is still leaving a window open for projects backed by influential lobbies, such as that of motorsports, who may command support across the political divide. The safeguard in this case is that such projects would still have to be approved by the PA before being ratified by parliament.

The only vague aspect of this policy is how a future government will be defining what constitutes a  “major project” which requires parliamentary approval. In the absence of a clear definition, one may end up with arbitrary decisions on what constitutes a major project.  

Also cast in stone is the exclusion of land reclamation projects for “speculative purposes”, and that any other land reclamation projects will only be permitted within a framework for the spatial planning of the coastal zone and the marine area. This means that under a PN government no land will be reclaimed to make way for real estate. 

The PN shied away from taking a clear stand on illegal boathouses
The PN shied away from taking a clear stand on illegal boathouses
But this still leaves an open window for economic activities deemed to be non-speculative, such as storage space for warehousing or tourism development.

One risk would be that developers would propose mixed use developments which keep the residential development on the coast and additional tourism development on reclaimed land.  

The PN is also firmly committing itself to amend the Strategic Plan for the Environment and Development (SPED) to remove the ambiguity created by a clause which allows development on vacant ODZ land whenever this is deemed not feasible within development zones. This will eliminate one of the major loopholes in current planning policies.

Another concrete commitment is to scrap the Paceville masterplan which envisioned 18 high-rise developments in this area and to formulate a skyline policy for the whole country, in line with the PN’s belief that “the skyline is part of our common heritage.”  

Such a policy will ensure that the visual impact of high-rises is assessed on a national level rather than a local level, thus ensuring that views on strategic locations such as Mdina, Valletta and the countryside are not broken by such buildings.  

Still, the policy gives some leeway to a  party which has never pronounced itself to be against high-rise development. Much depends on the way the promised skyline policy is formulated but the sheer existence of such a policy strengthens the position of environmentalists. For the impact of high-rises on long distance views and the Maltese landscape as a holistic entity has never been assessed.

The document also enshrines the concept of solar rights, going as far as proposing government compensation for cases when rooftops are over-shadowed by new building heights. But this in itself raises the issue of whether planning policies should be changed to protect existing sky lines – and access to solar energy in urban areas. The document also refers to innovative ideas such as the development of solar roads, which would be less taxing on land use than solar farms on vacant land.

On fish farms the PN goes as far as saying that this industry should only be allowed to continue to operate as long as it fulfills the expected environmental standards and is “relocated well off the coast”, thus dispelling the perception that the party is close to the fish farm lobby. But the document omits any mention of the impact of tuna penning on fish stocks and biodiversity.

Vague proposals

The policy document aims to  “ensure a zero-tolerance approach to illegal development, particularly that which is carried out in ODZ areas”, but falls short of any concrete proposals to address what has been repeatedly denounced by the Environment and Resources Authority as the “malpractice of first carrying out development outside development zones without the required permits and subsequently expecting the regulatory authorities to retroactively sanction a fait accompli.”

One way to address this issue is to reintroduce a clause in the 2010 planning law, removed from the law approved in 2015, which bans the PA from legalising ODZ illegalities carried out after 2008 and any development in protected areas irrespective of when this was carried out.

Understandably the policy does not seek to upset the recent demerger of MEPA but promises immediate action to give the Environment and Resources Authority (ERA) the proper tools to truly perform its functions as the guardian of the environment.  But the document does not address the present situation which sees the ERA being continuously over-ruled by the PA in the granting of hundreds of planning permits.  

One way to address this institutional deficit is by giving the ERA the same advisory powers granted to the Planning Directorate, through the issue of a final report on each permit application. In this way decision making boards will have to justify any decision where the ERA’s recommendation is overturned.

The document refers to a landscape policy which establishes a vision for a natural environment “which is well curated and ecologically restored.” The document vaguely hints that such a policy will also seek to “unify our ODZ areas”. While such a policy suggests an extension of non-developable areas, this can only come through a revision of development boundaries which could be a double edged sword in the absence of a clear commitment against the inclusion of any new land in development boundaries.

The PN is committed to scrap the Paceville masterplan which envisioned 18 high-rise developments
The PN is committed to scrap the Paceville masterplan which envisioned 18 high-rise developments
Another awkward policy is that of giving “economic value” to publicly-owned ODZ land. While this is meant at eliminating the current ‘incentive’ for the government to give up ODZ land for speculative projects on the ground that it is ‘cheap’ if not ‘freely available’, as happened in the case of Zonqor, such a policy falls short of a blanket ban on ODZ development on such land, even if this possibility is curtailed by the need of a two-thirds majority in parliament and the removal of the “feasibility” clause in the SPED.  

While the policy includes an entire chapter dedicated to water management, which refers to the introduction of unspecified measures “to reduce water consumption and “curb abuses”, the policy does not refer to the unsustainable extraction of water from boreholes. One would have expected the policy to at least rule out the free extraction of water from groundwater sources for non-agricultural activities such as the production of mineral water or soft drinks. The document does refer to the need to “improve the quality of groundwater and surface water, to promote better capture and use of rainwater, and to significantly reduce the use of groundwater,” but it does not explain how. One possible solution suggested by the document is to provide “distribution networks for treated sewage effluent,” but this is not accompanied by a pricing mechanism for water presently extracted for free from boreholes.

While committing a future Nationalist government to adhere to EU directives with regard to the re-use and recycling of waste, the document is reluctant to commit the party for or against incineration. On this contentious issue the party is committed to embark on a national consultation process: “to identify the most appropriate waste disposal options, including the waste to energy option being currently studied by this government”. 

While the party speaks about incentivising the restoration and regeneration of historic and scheduled buildings in urban conservation areas, it falls short of committing itself for the reversal of planning policies such as the development guidelines issued in 2015, which have facilitated the construction of additional storeys on the facades of old buildings in UCAs and the destruction of townhouses in other areas to pave the way for more apartment blocks. Moreover it was the local plans approved by a PN government in 2006 which commenced this process, which was aggravated by policies approved by the present government.

Not even mentioned

Although the document dedicates a chapter to biodiversity it fails to make any reference to hunting and trapping, a contentious issue which poses a dilemma to a party the majority of whose voters favoured the abolition of spring hunting but which has lost support in strategic pro-hunting localities such as Gozo and the south west of the island.  

While the spring hunting issue has been resolved by the referendum, and political parties will be expected to respect the result, the government’s decision to ignore the EU commission by allowing trapping poses a problem for the PN.

Also omitted is any reference to illegal development in shanty towns such as Armier.  Party leader Simon Busuttil has already declared that he is not bound by pre-electoral agreements with the boathouse owners signed by his predecessors and has invited the government to discuss a common stance on this issue with the opposition. While this may well be the only way to resolve the situation, which may cost either party thousands of votes, the issue, neglected by the present government, is bound to crop up before the next election.

One major omission is any reference to the new local plans being devised by the present government in 2013 but which have been apparently postponed to after the general election.  

By doing so the government has raised the stakes, inviting electoral pressure from land owners who stand to gain from relaxed height limitations and any tampering of development boundaries. The PN may at least exclude from new development boundaries the inclusion of any land which is presently outside development boundaries.  

In the absence of such a commitment, the PN itself may end up being subjected to the pressure of land owners whose appetite is being whetted by the decisions of the present government.

The party also shies away from any commitment to reverse policies approved by the present government, such as the policy guidelines regulating development in rural areas approved in 2015 – which have resulted in an onslaught of minor developments in pristine areas, including the resurrection of long demolished buildings.

James Debono is MaltaToday's chief reporter on environment, planning and land use issues, ...