No rollback on Aarhus

What matters is not just that information is provided to those interested in a particular permit as clients or objectors, but that this information is easily accessible to those whose main interest is to scrutinise institutions

27 July 2017, 7:54am
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Yesterday’s U-turn by the Planning Authority on the accessibility to information which had been left out of its website revamp was a welcome development, coming less than 24 hours into the disconcerting news.

As practitioners of the journalistic trade, it is clear to us that full information and transparency is key to the normal functioning of a liberal democracy. On sensitive issues such as the environment and lands, a subject that matters so much for Maltese society for the way these two issues affect quality of life, this newspaper feels it could not countenance any slippage on transparency.

It bears reminding readers why the information that has always been available on the PA website, in the main forced by the obligations of the Aarhus Convention, is so vital to local councils, residents’ associations, NGOs, environmentalists, scientists and journalists.

For media workers, the website has always been a valuable tool in scrutinizing planning applications: a rare instance of transparency and access to information.

The search facility makes a full scrutiny of permits possible, and allows the public and practitioners to have access to the documents presented to the authority, as well as lists of outside development zone (ODZ) applications and those for UCAs (urban conservation areas). This kind of scrutiny allows the public to understand how their villages and towns are changing due to development and similar types of encroachment.

Much of this is made possible with the ability to search these permits and applications by date and local council, providing an updated list of developments, as well as being able to search planning enforcements and applications by locality. Indeed, planning applications are usually included in the search system as soon as they are given a PA number, which means they are online before being published in the Government Gazette. 

This information is important because it helps journalists and the general public to monitor planning permits even if they lack specific knowledge of a PA number of a particular application. Without this facility, the new website would have only catered for the needs of professionals and objectors who have a particular PA application in mind, and not to cater to planning watchdogs whose task is to scrutinize the planning applications in a more holistic way.

It is positive that for the first time the PA calendar directly refers to regularisation permits (introduced in 2016) – which used to be published only in the government gazette – and DNOs (development notification orders) in the same way as PA applications in the PA’s calendar. The PA website also includes statistical information on the number of dwellings approved from 2000 to 2015 which used to be updated each year, as well as documents related to land reclamation, and pending planning control applications.

All of this precious documentation should remain in the public domain, freely accessible to the general public. In their absence, such a development would have represented a step backwards in terms of access to information and transparency, especially because such information has been provided under different administrations for more than a decade. What matters is not just that information is provided to those interested in a particular permit as clients or objectors, but that this information is easily accessible to those whose main interest is to scrutinise institutions.