The cost of overdevelopment

If we are to preserve our natural heritage and conserve our urban tradition – which would entail a strict ‘ODZ is ODZ’ policy – the country needs a masterplan with an environmental bias

16 July 2017, 7:30am
Now more than ever would be a good time to introduce new rules that can stop the abuse of a government’s power of incumbency during an election
Now more than ever would be a good time to introduce new rules that can stop the abuse of a government’s power of incumbency during an election
When discussing the environmental effects of construction and development, there is a tendency to concentrate mainly on the short-term effects – the inconvenience of noise and dust pollution during the construction phase, the added pressures on an already overburdened infrastructure, and the traffic congestion arising from closed of roads.

These are, of course, all pressing concerns in their own right. But there also longer-term consequences which may be more serious and detrimental to our national sense of well-being. The real pressure is on quality of life and the natural environment. On one level we are constantly filling up every square inch of available land with new construction sites: condemning entire communities to an increasingly claustrophobic urban environment in which there is literally no breathing space. On another, we are eating ever further into the countryside, endangering what little remains of our wildlife’s natural habitat.

To make matters worse, all this seems to be taking place in the absence of a clear and consistent development strategy or plan. There is little apparent rhyme or reason in the unprecedented spate of development this country is currently witnessing. Ongoing projects include the proposed reconstruction of a derelict hotel at Kalanka Bay in Delimara; an upcoming five-story home for the elderly on the edge of Buskett; the massive Trade Fair project, and countless townhouses being demolished on Triq San Giljan just off Balluta for the construction of apartments.

Elsewhere, loopholes in the revised Structure Plan allow for the rehabilitation of ODZ properties, so long as these were once used (often at a time predating the Planning Act) as ‘residences’. As a result we have seen a spate of new development even in supposedly ODZ areas, with the blessing of the Planning Authority.

It is in fact becoming unacceptable that the Planning Authority is rubber-stamping an unprecedented slew of permits, with mounting evidence of political interference in the approval process. During the last electoral campaign, an average of 38 permits a day – weekends included – were issued... compared to just five during the 2013 campaign, and 24 in the 2008 general election campaign, when the PN was re-elected by just 1,500 votes.

The most controversial permits issued in the 2017 campaign were an extension to the Gharghur fireworks factory in Wied id-Dis, approved on the eve of the election.

The PA also approved four villas lying outside the development zones in a hamlet in Triq Santu Rokku in Kalkara, despite four prior refusals by the Planning Authority for development on the same 1,400m2 site. The area is in the vicinity of the Wied Rinella valley, and forms part of an Area of Ecological Importance, enjoying Level 4 protection – a level of protection accorded to buffer zones of areas enjoying a higher level of protection.

Two brand new dwellings have been approved in the Wied Ghomor valley in St Julian’s, instead of two dilapidated dwellings, while a cafeteria and a brand new dwelling were approved outside development zones in Wied il-Kbir in Qormi.

There can be no justification for such a serious spike in controversial planning permits during election campaigns. It is obvious that the PA has allowed itself to be used as a tool for purely political purposes.

But the PA is only an accomplice. The real problems stem from our political parties’ refusal to ever fight off the development lobby’s evident stranglehold over both.

Back in 2008, Labour leader Alfred Sant had accused the Planning Authority of being “in a frantic rush to approve as many permits as possible before the election” and described the increase in the number of permits as “a clear case of the system being rigged to suit the Nationalists”.

Sant had famously also complained about the ‘power of incumbency’ at the same election. It is ironic, then, that the Labour Party – once in government – would resort to precisely the same tactics that it had previously criticised. Nor does it help that the PN has been guilty of the same approach... resulting in a situation whereby neither party, on its own, can be expected to overturn the status quo.

Yet the status quo must be somehow overthrown, if we are to avoid a situation whereby life becomes increasingly unbearable in this otherwise beautiful and tranquil island of ours.

Now more than ever would be a good time to introduce new rules that can stop the abuse of a government’s power of incumbency during an election: for example, by preventing government agencies from spending more or issuing more permits than an acceptable average during preceding months.

Indeed, a similar mechanism is already in place in Maltese law: when a budget bill is not approved by the House, and which often means new elections for the administration, spending by the government cannot exceed a certain limit until a new administration is elected.

We must now consider extending that principle to the over-issue of development permits. Malta’s face is being changed by unprecedented economic growth and an influx of foreign capital and labour. If we are to preserve our natural heritage and conserve our urban tradition – which would entail a strict ‘ODZ is ODZ’ policy – the country needs a masterplan with an environmental bias.