Putting sense in the environmental debate

To argue that the proposed changes in Local Plans and planning polices will lead to all Malta being built up and left without any countryside might have its emotional allure but it is very economical with the truth

The proposals calling for a revision of Local Plans and a number of specific planning policies triggered by a political decision taken by the government elected last March have provoked a debate on the real intentions of these proposals and hence a reaction from different environmental groups. The public protest held a week ago was a public manifestation of this reaction, even though it was ostensibly triggered by the debate on the issue of the controversial permit for a large scale development in Mistra, a development that many consider to be insensitive.

The problem with that particular controversy is that the timing of the protest is too late, as it often is. Anyone who checks how the issue of this permit evolved would find that those who bought the site of the former Mistra village had split the area into traditional plots and had even entered into preliminary agreements to sell a number of these plots to different would-be purchasers; when in stepped MEPA (or its political master, or both) and decreed that the site is to be developed comprehensively. This led to the abandonment of the plots proposals (with some would-be purchasers even losing their deposits) and the switch to one foreign developer who then proceeded to propose the application of the Floor Area Ratio (FAR) policy for the whole development. An outline permit was issued in which the FAR policy was applied too liberally and hence the rest of the story.

This does not mean that the FAR policy is wrong or that the issue of outline permits is not justified - only that in this case MEPA's discretion was not applied judiciously and was not conducive to a good result. As a matter of fact, since the law governing MEPA was changed, outline permits are no longer possible. I will not enter into the merits of the reasons given by the previous administration for this change, but it certainly was not that outline permits could be abused. Otherwise, one could use the same argument for full permits: they can be abused - hence the issue of all permits should be banned.

An article in The Times last Monday written by the manager of one vociferous environmental group - Flimkien ghal Ambjent Ahjar (FAA) - not only reveals the ignorance of the writer regarding the fact that outline permits are a thing of the past but also makes the argument that since a particular outline permit was judged by him to have been issued in a way that works 'against development policies', then the idea behind them is wrong. This argument is short-sighted and could even be used for the banning of sports because there are sportsmen who wrongly taken performance enhancing drugs or even for the banning of cooking because kitchen knives have been wrongly used in murders.

I do not always agree with the FAA founder Astrid Vella, but I know that she always makes articulate and logical arguments, so I was quite surprised to read the article of the FAA manager. Frankly it was a hodgepodge of erroneous arguments that led to nowhere. 

Any system whereby development permits are issued must allow for a certain amount of discretion by whoever issues the permits. That this discretion can be abused - purposely or otherwise - is a fact of life and no law can prevent it. Indeed laws that impose conditions such that whoever is applying the law is left without an amount of leeway or discretion are bad laws. Planning policies are therefore a guide not a straightjacket.

That environmental NGOs criticise MEPA when they feel that this discretion was not been fairly applied is understandable. Indeed this criticism is a healthy aspect of our democracy and leads to MEPA being more careful when taking decisions. NGOs have a right to disagree with the interpretation and application of planning policies in particular decisions. That NGOs go on to automatically dub these decisions 'illegal' is, however, a gross exaggeration.

Gross exaggeration was the order of the day in the contributions to the press leading to the protest last weekend and some of the speeches at the end of the protest. One third of Malta is built up. It is in nobody's interest to increase the chunk of Malta that is built up, including developers and operators in the tourism sector, albeit their reasoning might be somewhat different from that of environmentalists. To argue that the proposed changes in Local Plans and planning polices will lead to all Malta being built up and left without any countryside might have its emotional allure but it is very economical with the truth.

The arguments stem from the proposed policies on developments in ODZ (Outside Development Zone) areas and on the FAR policy.

The present polices for ODZ, more often than not, precludes the redevelopment of sites that are already built up. This is leading to abandoned buildings that serve more as eyesores than as anything else. I do not see why redevelopment of these buildings should not be allowed, so long as the existing footprint is not exceeded i.e. so long as there is no real increase in the area already occupied by building - irrespective of its use.

It is new development on unbuilt land for an agricultural purpose that is a very hot potato; and this is where MEPA has to be wary. I have seen legitimate farmers literally crying over MEPA not allowing them to build a store and others making money by selling their 'stores' for weekend picnics. Sorting out the genuine cases from the fake ones is akin to walking through a minefield.

The proposal for 'agro-tourism' outlets is also a bone of contention. However the amount of land one has to own to be granted such a permit is so large that the potential permits are very limited. Developers are not going to start buying land from different owners so that eventually they own the minimum area requested by the policy in order to be able to build a small 'agro-tourism' outlet. The cost of doing so would be prohibitive. So we are left with a few owners who already possess large tracts of land and with the suspicion that this policy is tailor-made for some of them. Frankly, I personally agree that there is a good argument for forgetting all about this idea.

FAR is the policy that has provoked shudders at the thought of Maltese skyscrapers on the scale of Dubai and Shangai - a gross exaggeration if there ever was one. The policy allows for so called 'medium rise' and 'tall rise' buildings; but in truth these descriptions are very misleading if one where to consider them in the context of development in other countries. FAR is a system whereby one is permitted to go higher than otherwise allowed by leaving an open space around the building. So, in an area where one can build four storey buildings, the developer is allowed to build an eight storey building if it occupies only half the area of the site, while the other half is left as open space. The proposal is for so-called medium rise buildings not to exceed double the height limitation of the area. So-called 'high rise' are limited to six localities and subject to a minimum site area. Theoretically there is no height limitation, but in practice this is limited by technical considerations and more so by the fact that the total floor areas of the building must still to be equal to the total floor area of the development allowed in the Local Plan.

When applied properly, FAR does not increase the density of the development in the area and frees open spaces in built-up areas that should be enjoyed by the public. The last point is important as opting for a large private space surrounded by buildings undermines the benefits of the system.

One can make reasonable and logical arguments for and against any proposal - and so it should be.

Gross exaggerations, however, do not help the process by which the country should arrive at balanced and sensible solutions. They just drum up opposition against whatever it is, for opposition's sake.

Michael Falzon is Chairman of the Malta Developers Association and a former Nationalist infrastructure minister ([email protected])

More in Blogs