‘Pencil Development’ should be rubbed out, not rubber-stamped

But one thing, at least is certain. Just like those ’broken teeth’ they so closely resemble: this ruling establishes that Malta’s urban streetscapes have indeed been the victim of an ‘act of ‘violence’ – now deemed ‘criminal’, by our country’s highest court - for the past seven years, at least

‘Pencil Development’. What an odd little expression, to describe such an unsightly – if not hideously ugly - phenomenon....

But, oh well. It’s been used a lot in the media, ever since last Thursday: when the Constitutional Court overturned a PA permit, in what has been described - by the President of the Kamra Tal-Periti, no less – as a “landmark court decision that virtually wipes out the speculative approach to development, adopted by the Planning Authority over the past 17 years.”

So if – like me – you were initially perplexed by the term: let’s just say that it’s how the architecture profession refers to the sort of ‘jarringly uneven, mismatching, high-rise development’, that has disfigured so many of our traditional town and village centres in recent years.

In other words: the sort of thing that, back in the 1980s and 1990s – when it was still limited mostly to ‘tourist areas’, such as Sliema, St Julian’s, Qawra, Marsascala, Marsalforn, etc. – we used to refer to as ‘Broken-Teeth Architecture’ instead.

Personally, I still prefer that turn of phrase, to ‘pencil development’. Apart from simply being a whole lot more accurate, in capturing the visual impact of the phenomenon itself (especially, when viewed from afar); it also implies that what you’re seeing is not just ‘hideously ugly’, on a purely aesthetic level... but also...

... well, WRONG, I suppose. Like a ‘scar’ on the landscape; or a physical deformity that would, in medical terms, be considered ‘pathological’: to be either ‘treated’, or ‘removed’.

In other words: it’s the sort of thing that instantaneously shatters – just like a good old-fashioned ‘sock-in-the-jaw’, in fact – our collective expectations of what ‘good architecture’ and ‘proper planning’ are SUPPOSED to actually look like (at least, in countries that actually such matters seriously.)

And that makes broken teeth a far more incisive (ahem) analogy, than... ‘pencils’, of all unearthly things! Even because, quite frankly, I happen to associate the latter with the precise opposite of all that, myself.

To give one quick example, before moving on: if, say, Walt Disney Productions were to announce that their latest film was a ‘Pencil-Animation’... I would take that to mean a departure from the contemorary CGI approach; and a return to the earlier hand-drawn methods, that resulted in such timeless classics as ‘Dumbo the Flying Archite...’ I mean, ‘Elephant’, back in the 1940s.

And in my own book, at least: I’d have to ‘pencil’ that down as a POSITIVE development; and certainly not a negative one...

Broken teeth, on the other hand? I think we can all safely agree there’s absolutely nothing ‘positive’ about that, at all. For let’s face it, folks:  if someone suddenly flashed a smile at you... to reveal a set of teeth that physically resembled the skyline of the Sliema Seafront, as viewed from a passing boat (or Gollum from ‘the Lord of the Rings’, if you prefer)...

... I mean: you’d all at least ‘notice’ that something was just slightly ‘WRONG’, wouldn’t you now?

And not just for purely ‘cosmetic’ reasons, either. Oh, no: if the mental image of ‘broken teeth’ automatically sets our own molars on edge...  it’s also because we all instinctively know – from our own collective experience, with dental issues -  just how problematic (not to mention painful) such conditions can be.

Simply put: a badly broken set of teeth does not only ‘hurt your looks’, or ‘damage your self-esteem’... it can also seriously impede your ability to actually chew your food, before swallowing it: a fact which - on its own - increases the likelihood of choking, with possibly fatal consequences, by around 70-80%. (Think of THAT, next time you use the expression ‘Inbellghalek snienek’ in an argument...).

And besides, it could even result in the development of certain (permanent, without dentures) speech impediments: including the physical inability to ever properly pronounce ‘labio-dental fricatives’, such as the consonant ‘F’.

In purely layman’s terms: it means that if you try telling someone to ‘F***K OFF!’, with your two front-teeth missing... what they’ll actually hear might sound more like: “SHUCK OSH!!” (And that – to my own ears, at least – actually sounds a whole lot worse...)

Leaving aside, of course, that there are only so many pathways that can possibly lead to ‘teeth’ getting physically ‘broken’, in the first place.  It’s either going to be through violence; or accident; or (as in my own case) ‘natural dental decay, caused by gross human negiligence’. Not one of which, I need hardly add, can realistically be described as ‘positive thing’...

Well, it’s exactly the same with so-called ‘pencil developments’, you know. There are, after all, only so many pathways – legally and administratively speaking, this time – that can possibly lead to the sort of ‘urban disfigurements’ our towns and villages have been so brutally subjected to, in the recent past. It’s always going to be a combination of:

> Greedy, unscrupulous entrepreneurs, who always try to squeeze as much possible profit, out of every last square-inch of their property’s site-footprint;

> Architects and urban planners, who seem to think their job is actually to help their clients reach that goal: by using their expert knowledge of the planning system, to design buildings that – at the stroke of a pencil – ‘circumvent’ all existing policies and regulations;

> And last but not least, Malta’s planning policies themselves: which, let’s face it, were never really up to the task of protecting Malta’s architectural heritage, even when originally drawn up in 2006 (still less now: after the Local Plans have been ‘chopped and changed’, repeatedly, since around 2015: always adding newer, and ever more cunningly-disguised ‘loopholes’ to be exploited... and on it all goes, ad infinitum...)

Or as KTP President Andre Pizzuto put it, more succinctly, above: ‘the speculative approach to development, adopted by the Planning Authority over the past 17 years.”   

Which of course, brings us right back to that court ruling I mentioned earlier: the one that – if certain interpretations (including Pizzuto’s) are indeed correct – will ‘rub out’ what seems to be an existing Planning Authority policy, to always officially allow pencil developments, on the grounds that:

a) The planning regulations are so (deliberately) vague – and sometimes contradictory – that they can always be tailored to deliver the exact outcome that the developer wants, in each and every permit application... and;

b) The developers themselves - to quote the Environment and Review Tribunal, when approving the same permit that has now been overturned - “should not be denied of the rights given to [them] by the local plan”.

Now: I’ll admit I haven’t had time to properly digest the full implications, for the future of Malta’s construction and development sector... but there are a few conclusions that can be drawn right now, even from a superficial reading of the verdict.

For instance: Chief Justice Mark Chetchuti seems to have unceremoniously thrown out both the above arguments, by reasoning that:

a) Just because the (amended) Local Plans contain provisos that may permit exceptions to certain policies, here and there: it doesn’t logically follow that the Planning Authority is OBLIGED to always accede to the developer’s every last ‘exceptional’ demand (still less, that the developers themselves have a ‘right’ to always get exactly what they want, every single time... as all along implied by the original ERT ruling).

b) Apart from “an annex included in the Development Control Design Policy of 2015” – i.e., the infamous 2015 amendment, which revised the height restrictions in urban certain areas – there are a host of other planning policies and regulations currently in place: many of which specifically prohibit, in no uncertain terms, precisely the sort of ‘pencil-development’ that we are talking about, right now.

Chief Justice Chetcuti also makes it abundantly clear that: “although a development may adhere to the height limitation established in the local plan, it could still be in breach of other policies which cannot be over-ruled simply because the height limitation is respected.”

These include (to quote lawyer/activist Claire Bonello, this time): “policies relating to the visual impact, aesthetics, ecological value and amenity of the area, which are very often ignored by developers and the Planning Authority alike.”

Effectively, then – and like I said earlier: I’d need more time to analyse the ruling, in detail – it appears that the Constitutional Court has not only ‘annulled one particular PA permit’, on those paricular grounds... but it has also (indirectly) found the Planning Authority itself GUILTY of ‘overlooking its own policies and regulations’, ever since 2015: when all those policies were originally enacted.

And inevitably, that implies that ALL the other examples of ‘pencil developments’ we have already witnessed, sprouting up around the entire country in recent years, have all likewise been... ILLEGAL. (Or at least: in flagrant violation, of ‘countless’ existing PA policies since 2015).

Now: it remains to be seen, of course, what sort of ‘impact’ this will actually have, on Malta’s entire construction industry (including, as the KPT separately warned, on the ‘price of property’). I, for one, somehow doubt that all those other ‘pencil-developments’ will be demolished, any time soon...

But one thing, at least is certain. Just like those ’broken teeth’ they so closely resemble: this ruling establishes that Malta’s urban streetscapes have indeed been the victim of an ‘act of ‘violence’ – now deemed ‘criminal’, by our country’s highest court - for the past seven years, at least.

So who knows? Maybe now might be a good time to finally progress from ‘rubber-stamping’ pencil developments... to ‘rubbing it out’ entirely, once and for all.