How is the PA going to celebrate its 30th birthday?

The institution formerly known as MEPA is hitting the ‘Big Three-O’ next year: shouldn’t it likewise be taking stock of all that it has done, and been responsible for, in its first three decades of existence?

OK, I know it might be a little too early to ask. But as far as I know, the ‘Malta Environment and Planning Atroci’… I mean, ‘Authority’… was first set up way back in 1992, with the approval of the landmark ‘Development and Planning Act’,.

So come around December next year, the institution we all fondly know as ‘the PA’ (and which, let’s face it, we have all come to love and respect so very, very much) will be celebrating – drums rolling - its 30th birthday, no less!

And that’s an important milestone, you know. Or at least, that is how it usually feels to those have yet to actually cross that threshold themselves. So much so, that I’ve heard it described as ‘The Big Three-O’ – sometimes, even ‘The Dreaded Three-O’ – as though the act of ‘turning 30’ somehow marks a transition between one phase of adult life, and the next…

And in a sense, I suppose it does. Never mind that I myself don’t actually remember much about my own ‘Big Three-O’ moment… or at least, not enough to distinguish it from any other birthday, before or since (note: for me personally - and many others that I know - the ‘Big Four-O’ was actually by far the bigger deal… but let’s not digress.)

Fact remains, however, that it is upon ‘turning 30’ – and not a day older, or younger - that ‘youth’ officially turns out not to be ‘eternal’ after all. And I mean that quite literally, too: for that is the precise age when your eligibility for a ‘Youth Card’ suddenly expires… just like that, from one moment to the next.

With equal abruptness, ‘turning 30’ also means that you’re no longer eligible to, say, serve in your country’s Armed Forces… or enlist in the French Foreign Legion... or train to become an astronaut at NASA…  or pretty much anything that is assumed to require a certain degree of good health and physical fitness.

And that’s before taking into account all the small (and not-so-small) differences you suddenly start noticing as you enter your fourth decade of existence. The cost of life insurance premiums, for instance, tends to suddenly shoot up at exactly midnight on your last day as a 29-year-old ‘youth’… which is also when you automatically lose certain beneficial bank-loan conditions (especially the ones which require a 35-year repayment period, in a country where retirement age is 65. Do the math…)

So make no mistake: ‘turning 30’ is indeed a very big deal… whether the people doing the ‘turning’ actually realise it or not (I, for instance, didn’t). Regardless whether it actually corresponds to any life-changes, occurring at that age… the ‘Big Three-O’ is still the official moment when society, in all its myriad manifestations, suddenly turns to you and says, in no uncertain terms: ‘Face it, grandpa: you’re an old codger now. It’s all downhill from here…’

And that, in turn, is also the reason why so many people feel compelled to celebrate this ‘dreaded’ rite of passage moment, with a party of slightly more ‘special magnificence’ than usual...

Which brings me back to the original question in the headline. Next year it will be the Planning Authority’s turn to celebrate this all-important age milestone. And while ‘birthdays’ might not have quite the same significance for national institutions, as they do for human beings…. well, many of the same fundamental preoccupations apply just as much to State regulators, as they do to lesser mortals.

To put that another way: if the act of ‘turning 30’ – if and of itself – prompts so many people to ask themselves all sorts of ‘midlife crisis’: e.g., what I am even doing here, anyway? What am I meant to be doing, at this stage of my life? What do have to show for myself, at what is ultimately the mid-point of my career? And… hold on… what the heck is that small, shiny thing in my beard? Is it really…? No, it can’t be… Oh my God, it is….


You know, that sort of thing. Now: if human beings have to go through all that trauma, just because a certain ‘life-threshold’ has been reached… shouldn’t national institutions be expected go through some of it, too?

And if the institution formerly known as MEPA is hitting the ‘Big Three-O’ next year… shouldn’t it likewise be taking stock of all that it has done, and been responsible for, in its first three decades of existence? Don’t at least some of the above ‘midlife crisis’ questions – especially the one about how much (or little) we all actually have to show, for our time on this planet – also apply to the Planning Authority: which (unlike most ordinary 30-year-olds) is actually responsible for the safeguarding of our country’s cultural and environmental heritage, no less…?

In any case: I’m dying to hear the answers, when the time comes. Who knows? Perhaps the PA will celebrate its 30th birthday by showcasing all its tremendous environmental successes, ever since it was set up in 1992. Yes indeed, I can picture it all already: a slideshow demonstration, comparing how various parts of the Maltese (and especially Gozitan) landscape have changed – for the better, of course – in 30 years of ‘regulation’ by the Planning Authority…

Because that’s another thing about the so-called ‘Big Three-O’. Thirty years may indeed be a long time… but it is not quite long enough to relegate the entire pre-MEPA era to ‘before living memory’ status.

Some people out there do still remember a time when there was no such thing as a ‘Planning Authority’ at all… and, by the same token, they also remember precisely why the need for one had become so desperately urgent by the late 1980s.

In my own case (having been born and raised in Sliema) those memories invariably feature the senseless, shocking demolition of elegant, early-20th century townhouses along the seafront – often as not, bearing the signature of renowned architects of the time: Emmanuele Luigi Galizia, Alberta La Ferla, Gustavo Romeo Vincenti, etc. – to be replaced by… um…

… well, that’s whole the point, right there in a nutshell. All of 30 years later, it seems we are still exactly where we left off back in the early 1990s: i.e. before MEPA was even established.

Then as now, we are still demolishing all our most priceless architectural heritage with unchecked abandon; we are still disfiguring all the most unspoilt remaining pockets of urban or rural charm; and then as now, we are still replacing all this loss with the only things our architects and developers seem capable of ever designing or building.

Apartment blocks. High-rise residential complexes. And – arguably much worse – a never-ending assortment of unsightly, mismatching concrete accretions: each designed to take up as much of the available space as possible, with as little regard as possible to the surrounding area… so the end result looks much like the outcome of a Tetris game (only with all the mismatching pieces still in place).

How, exactly, is any of that an ‘improvement’ over the situation as it stood 30 years ago (you know: the same situation we invented MEPA to try and fix)?

From where I’m sitting, it seems that there are only two aspects of Malta’s construction mayhem that have in any way ‘improved’ during MEPA’s 30-year reign.   The first is the sheer number of questionable (often ODZ) permits approved by the Planning Authority: which has gone up incrementally over the past three decades… culminating in a 5% increase in the last five years alone.

And the second ‘improvement’ is that – now that finally we have a Planning Authority to regulate the sector - we can no longer realistically call any of this madness ‘illegal’.

All those photos that people sometimes post online, to draw public attention to the latest PA outrage? All those blocks of flats that have been improbably squeezed into the tiniest of footprints… those gargantuan mega-projects (I’m looking at you, Xlendi and Marsalforn) that have dwarfed, or utterly humiliated the surrounding skyline… all those architectural absurdities, resulting in historical monuments – or even just idyllic, unspoilt village cores – overshadowed utterly by that single eight-story building, or that eyesore of a new hotel… with their hideous blank ‘konsentura walls’, leering back at us like empty billboards, everywhere we look..?

Well: since 1992, we can safely say that every single one of those abominations will have been ‘approved’, one way or another, by the Planning Authority.

And even on those rare occasions when a project is built without a permit, or without respecting all its permit conditions….  not to worry: for 30 years, the Planning Authority has always been there to ensure that even illegal developments get a chance to be retroactively ‘sanctioned’ sooner or later.

And all along, the same old coterie of developers has simply continued its ‘get-rich-quick’ scheme, at the expense of the country’s natural and cultural environment… only this time - unlike the pre-1992 era – they can do so with the full blessing of the State regulator.

That, I suppose, represents the only ’solution’ the PA ever came up with, in 30 years, for the same problem it was originally created to ‘solve’. And the results are now painfully visible, almost every you look…