What’s the point of a ‘Planning Authority’… without ‘Planning’?

What’s the point of even having an ‘ERA’, to begin with: when all its objections are consistently ‘overruled’ by the Planning Authority Board… each and every single time?

The Planning Authority has now approved a fourth massive supermarket complex, all within the same five-minute driving radius from the centre of Mosta
The Planning Authority has now approved a fourth massive supermarket complex, all within the same five-minute driving radius from the centre of Mosta

Picture the scene. The year is 1252. The place? Westminster Abbey in London (which, interestingly enough, had only recently been completed). And the reason we are here, is to witness the trial of a certain Simon de Montfort – crusader, nobleman, and a former friend/protégé of King Henry III - on charges of high treason.

Or at least, a small part of that trial. (For obvious reasons, I won’t be delving into its full political and historical ramifications… just the juicy bits, for now). At one point, Simon de Montfort suddenly catches the King off-guard, with what would today be described as a ‘curve-ball’ question:

“Sire: do you ever go to confession?”

Bewildered, Henry III replies: “Why, yes! All the time, as it happens…!”

To which Montfort sardonically retorts: “What is the use of confession… without REPENTANCE?”

Now: those words may well have perplexed King Henry III, at the time [Note: according to most historical sources, he wasn’t exactly ‘the sharpest tool in the shed’]… but they were certainly not lost on the vast majority of English barons and noblemen, who had been convened to serve as jurors for the occasion.

They, it seems, understood perfectly well what Simon de Montfort was driving at (and let’s face it: so would we, if we were living in the same era.) What’s the point of taking measures to ‘improve your way of doing things’ – for that, ultimately, is what ‘confession’ is all about – if you’re only ever going to forge ahead with precisely the same old (failed) approaches, each and every single time?

And sure enough, when it came to the vote… one by one, those barons and noblemen acquitted Simon de Montfort, on all charges: in the process, sending King Henry a powerful message of their own. (Namely, that barons and noblemen might occasionally be JUSTIFIED, in openly rebelling against a monarch who simply never ‘learns from his own mistakes’...)

Right: enough with ancient history, for now. Let’s jump back into our time-travelling DeLorean, and set the dial for ‘15 December 2023’.

This morning, we all awoke to the (rather familiar) news that: ‘Discount giant supermarket Eurospin will be opening a new outlet right next door to competitor Lidl in Mosta, according to Planning Authority documents…’

.. and already, I imagine, you can see the relevance of that 800-year-old ‘curve-ball question’, to this particular scenario. But in case it still needs to be clarified a little further…

Just consider that - apart from being ‘right next door’ to the Mosta Lidl supermarket, mentioned in the above snippet – this new multinational supermarket franchise will also be sited a few hundred metres away from (once again) not one, but TWO adjacent giant ‘discount stores’, in the immediate vicinity: the so-called ‘PAMA shopping village’, just off the Naxxar-Mosta-Lija roundabout.

In other words: the Planning Authority has now approved (or is in the process of approving) a FOURTH massive supermarket complex, all within the same five-minute driving radius from the centre of Mosta… a town which, I need hardly add, has already been rendered practically UNREACHABLE, by the sheer volume of traffic already attracted to the area, by the three previously approved supermarkets….

Now: what was that 800-year-old question, again? Didn’t it have something to do with ‘authorities persisting with the same old FAILED policies; despite all the overwhelming evidence (which we can all confirm ourselves, from our own collective experience as Maltese citizens) that those policies just… don’t… WORK??!!’

But wait: there’s a lot more to the analogy, than that. For just like King Henry III used ‘confession’, as a means to merely assuage his own conscience (without ever actually changing his policy-direction)… the Planning Authority, too, has its own ‘rituals’, to absolve itself of all responsibility for its own decisions.

And they function remarkably like confession, too! For instance: with each of the above-mentioned ‘three previously-approved supermarkets’ (Pavi, Pama, Lidl), there had been extensive ‘public consultation exercises’: in which members of the public – alongside NGOs, other authorities, industry stakeholders, etc. – all got to have their own say on the project.

There are also (or ‘are supposed to be’, anyway) such things as ‘Environmental Impact Assessments’… ‘Traffic Impact Assessments’… ‘Quality-of-Life Impact Assessments’… you name the ‘Impact’, there will always be some kind of ‘Assessment’ process, that is supposed to go with it.

Meanwhile, just to give you an idea how all these ‘rituals’ actually work, in practice: in at least one of those three projects – a 2019 application to expand the existing PAMA supermarket by “a total gross floor area of 35,127 m2, spread equally over three floors (including garage-space for 380 cars)” – the Traffic Impact Assessment report had concluded that:

“In view of the already existing traffic pressures in the area, mainly due to the PAMA shopping complex, the proposal is likely to contribute further to such pressures and therefore the additional traffic generated by the proposal may potentially contribute to the degradation of the ambient air quality within the area.”

For this reason, and many others beside, the PA’s own Environment and Resources Authority opposed the project, during the board meeting…

… but then again: what’s the point of even having an ‘ERA’, to begin with: when all its objections are consistently ‘overruled’ by the Planning Authority Board… each and every single time?

And the same question could be asked about ‘public consultation exercises’, too. The following example admittedly pertains to another case altogether – this time, the notorious application to build an apartment block within a stone’s throw from Ggantija temples, in Xaghra – but I am told that similar scenarios unfold in many such meetings (not just this one).

This is how it was reported, on 11 November: “The eNGOs defending the historical setting of [Xaghra] at the Planning Authority were dismayed to witness a repeat of the ‘develop at all costs’ approach that the politicians profess to be turning their backs on.

“[…] the eNGOs noted how Victor Paul Borg, speaking on their behalf, had proven that the architect’s streetscape drawing was misleading in its portrayal of neighbouring building heights, in order to justify the height of this building.

“Yet when the objectors quoted examples of nearby applications that had been refused, they were silenced by the Chairman, who repeatedly defended the application, ignoring every policy infringement raised by Victor Borg, Astrid Vella, (FAA) and Romano Cassar, NGO representative on the PA Board.”

Nor does the PA limit itself to ignoring (if not, downright ‘silencing’) only the NGOs, residents, other regulatory bodies - including, apart from ERA, the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage - when taking these, and other decisions. Clearly, it also disregards all the evident RESULTS of its own past mistakes…

… such as, for instance, the undeniable fact that the PAVI-PAMA complex really HAS resulted in an overwhelming increase in traffic congestion, on the road leading towards Mosta: complete with all the ‘degrading’ impacts this is known to inflict, on the quality of life – not to mention health (both physical and mental) – of the town’s residents and visitors, alike.

All of which brings me to the headline’s more ‘modern’ phrasing of that 800-year-old question.

By how much, exactly, does the Mosta traffic congestion problem have to be exacerbated, on account of the unstoppable proliferation of ‘multinational supermarket franchises’ (in a town, please note, where nearly all existing streets are ‘single-lane’, and ‘one-way’)… before the PA finally realises that the area’s infrastructure simply cannot sustain the sheer volume of traffic, currently being diverted towards it?

I hate to say it, but… that’s what the ‘P’ part of ‘PA’ is supposed to actually stand for, you know. ‘Planning’: i.e., the ability to ‘anticipate’ – and, above all, ‘cater for’– all the possible problems and contingencies, that might arise from what are, after all, YOUR OWN (GODDAMN) DECISIONS!!!

But, oh well. I guess we’ll just have to mentally readjust our understanding of that acronym… and start calling it the ‘Polluting Authority’, instead.

Meanwhile, however, the same question has to be extended beyond the confines of Mosta: which - although severely afflicted - is hardly the only Maltese town, to suffer the consequences of the PA’s (lack of) ‘Planning’.

By how much does the quality of our overall environment also have to be ‘degraded’ – to a degree which now affects even our most basic, daily movements (the ability to ‘go from A to B’, for crying out loud!) - by PA decisions that are clearly intended to only ever ‘enrich the few, at the expense of entire Maltese communities…’

… before the people of this country finally do what Simon de Montfort did, way back in 1251, and… OPENLY REBEL?

Just thought I’d ask, because… you never know: history does have a funny way of ‘repeating itself’, from time to time…