Confusion on the Planning Authority’s fuel station permit rules

The policy for the relocated petrol stations in ODZ areas went over the top. Within the generous limits of the policy, the number of pumps increased fourfold

The current fuel station permit controversy is a classic case where state interference in what should be a free market could lead to serious consequences – whether unintended or otherwise.

First of all, in Malta the number of petrol stations is capped to the current level as the licensing of new petrol stations is practically impossible because Enemalta had decided – at the prodding of the GRTU – that no new licences for petrol stations were to be issued. In fact, this policy – that has withstood the test of time – was inherited by Enemed, the company set up when the petroleum division was hived off from Enemalta.

As far as I know, and since I can remember, the only ‘new’ petrol station that was allowed – with the GRTU’s consent – was the one at the airport terminal. The others are all transfers of existing fuel stations.

A number of these ‘old’ fuel stations are in the midst of our urban sprawl and are now actually a nuisance. They should therefore be moved away from inhabited areas. This was as far as the sensible justification went. That this led to the current mess shows what happens when policies are drawn up at the behest of individuals rather than for the common good.

The limitation of petrol station licences has given rise to an artificial value tied with what is, after all, a licence by the state. This is already contra-indicated in a free market economy where all players – whether established or potential – should have a level playing field.

The existing policy, in fact, discriminates between applications for the relocation of existing petrol service stations in residential areas and completely new applications. The latter do not actually exist. The policy allows for the possibility of petrol stations in ODZ areas only in the former cases.

So entrepreneurs first seek to ‘buy’ a licence from an existing operator who already owns a petrol station and then apply to the Planning Authority to move it to an ODZ area as per policy.

In short, no new petrol stations are actually being licensed but kerbside petrol stations that occupy a few square metres in an urban area (where they are – admittedly – a nuisance) are being relocated to ODZ areas where they are allowed to occupy 3,000 sq. mts. plus area for landscaping, pushing the land taken up from ODZ areas to some 5,000 sq. mt. per fuel station.

The argument that such relocation should be encouraged has its value. But the policy for the relocated petrol stations in ODZ areas went over the top. Within the generous limits of the policy, the number of pumps increased fourfold, there were new areas for servicing and buying accessories, areas for the washing of cars, and even for an eatery!

And so a kerbside petrol pump or two in urban areas ballooned to an incredible ODZ land gobbler when ‘relocated’. And the owner of every kerbside petrol pump, naturally, raised the ante and selling one’s licence became akin to selling a bus licence in the good old days!

I don’t know whether the Planning Authority counted the number of existing kerbside petrol stations that qualified for relocation when they set out the policy. Simply multiplying this number by 5,000 sq.m. should have shocked them and stopped them from suggesting the policy that was approved and is now still applicable.

According to reports, the Ministry for the Environment is proposing a reduction of the allowed area in ODZ to 2,000 sq.m – including landscaping. This is a very great improvement, of course.

As usual, the mess is not easy to clear. People have bought petrol pump licences for hefty sums and proceeded to apply for the relative station to be relocated. Apart from those already approved, there are some ten other applications submitted under the existing ‘generous’ policy.

Will changing the policy apply for them too? Technically and legally, there is a case for these applications to be processed as per the existing ‘generous’ policy, rather than according to whatever will replace it.

The Planning Authority has managed to put itself in yet another mess. Going out of it will not be easy: it will probably be yet another charade. How it will end is anybody’s guess.

Never a dull moment in this little island of ours!

Human experience all over the world has become longer, healthier, safer, happier, more stimulating and more prosperous

A better world

I have just been reading Steven Pinker’s ‘Enlightment Now’ that carries the sub-title: ‘The case for reason science, humanism and progress’.

The argument is simple. Many think that the world is going to the dogs. Pinker proves, statistically, that the world has never been a better place. He attributes this to the rise of science and humanism that have beaten the old ways riddled with superstition. This also shows that the nostalgic idea of an idyllic past is just a myth.

Parker insists that the idea that the world is sinking into chaos, hatred and irrationality is a perception that is completely wrong – based, as it is, on historical amnesia and statistical fallacies.

Forget the headlines and follow the statistics. These show that the human experience all over the world has become longer, healthier, safer, happier, more stimulating and more prosperous.

Some of Parker’s insights are intriguing. Inequality, for example, and poverty are not cause and effect. Statistically Pinker shows that even where inequality has increased, poverty has decreased.

He insists that war in the classic sense of an armed conflict between uniformed armies of two nation-states is practically obsolescent. Today skirmishes between such armies kill dozens of people rather than the hundreds of thousands who died in all-out wars that have been waged throughout history.

He attributes this progress to a coherent and inspiring value system – the values of the Enlightment: reason, science, humanism and progress.

Not that the world today lacks challenges such as inequality, climate change, artificial intelligence and nuclear weapons.

Man’s evolution for the better has given rise to problems that Parker believes can be solved if humanity uses reason and sympathy.

The world can never be perfect, of course. But it has been getting better and this trend should continue.