Who extended ODZ first?

if you analyse Labour’s entire approach to planning since 2013, you will find that it was all along geared up towards only one goal, blurring the distinction between developable and non-developable zones

Like many others of my generation, I discovered Abbot and Costello’s immortal ‘Who’s On First?” sketch entirely by accident: thanks to Dustin Hoffman’s Oscar-winning performance in the 1988 film, ‘Rain Man’.

In the unlikely event that anyone reading this has yet to make the same discovery, here is a rough reconstruction (though I do recommend watching the original performance on YouTube; as the written dialogue, alone, does not do it justice at all).

Abbot and Costello – arguably the most famous comic duo pairing since Laurel and Hardy – are discussing baseball. Abbot (the taller, streetwise one) assumes the role of a baseball team manager; and Costello (the shorter, rounder one) wants to know the names of all the players on the team, and what position they play.

So Abbot – after warning Costello that ‘baseball players have very peculiar names these days’ - duly supplies the information: ‘Who’s on first, What’s on second, and I Don’t Know is on third’.

I suppose you can already work out the rest:

Costello: So who’s on first?
Abbot: Yes.
Costello: Yes, what?
Abbot: No. What’s on second. Who’s on first.
Costello: But that’s what I’m asking… what’s the guy’s name on first base?
Abbott: No. What is the guy’s name on second base.
Costello: I’m not asking you who’s on second base…
Abbott: Who’s on first, not second...
Costello: One base at a time…!

And on it goes, for a full eight minutes of 1950s screwball comedy gold.

But what, you might by this point be asking, even brought this classic sketch to mind today, all these decades later? What is its relevance now, and to whom?

I am tempted, of course, to reply: ‘I Don’t Know’. (But he’s on third, remember?) So without further ado: I was reminded of that Abbot and Costello sketch this week, because I myself am still trying to work out the answer to an another, similar question: who was it who first opened the floodgates the ongoing construction mayhem in Malta? Was it ‘Who’, ‘What’, or ‘I Don’t Know’?

Let’s all have a crack at it, shall we? According to Transport Minister Ian Borg, the answer is straightforward enough. It was (as usual) the pesky Nationalists wot did it, that’s who.

“When we talk about unbridled construction, [this] is the result of the fact that in 2006, when the PN was in government, it added wide stretches of land to development zones […] What we have today is the result of a lack of planning in 2006. It’s important to remember that the Labour Party, led by Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, did not extend the boundary of development zones, not even by a metre.”

Got that, folks? While the PN extended the development zones by 16.6% in 2005/6 – or an area ‘roughly the size of Siggiewi’, as we were repeatedly told at the time – the Labour government did not extend the development zones ‘even by a metre’ since 2013.

All the construction going on in ODZ areas today, then, can be traced to that ill-fated decision by the Gonzi administration (for which the PN has already paid a somewhat steep price, incidentally: having lost two elections on the trot, both by gargantuan margins).

Very convenient, I must say, to place all the blame on a party that hasn’t been in government in over six years (and which, to cap it all, can also be said to hardly even exist anymore)… and even then, over one decision it took more than 12 years ago. Nonetheless, there is teenie-weenie little snag with Ian Borg’s overall assessment.

It isn’t true. For starters, the ODZ extension of 2006 cannot be held accountable for any (still less all) of the ODZ construction happening today: for the simple reason that those previously ODZ parcels of land – whatever the total combined surface area – had been added to the developable zones, and are therefore no longer ODZ.

This also means that any additional construction happening today, arising from that one-time extension of 2006, is taking place fully within the development zones… not outside them.

Naturally, none of this means that the original decision to widen those boundaries was, in itself, a good thing; but it does signify that today’s ODZ construction overdrive must be attributable to other, more recent, policy decisions. And we don’t have to look very far to spot them, either.

Onto the second flaw in Borg’s reasoning, then: it is simply untrue that the Labour government ‘did not extend the development zones’ since 2013. Granted, they might not have done quite it as blatantly as the Nationalists before them: but if you analyse Labour’s entire approach to planning since 2013, you will find that it was all along geared up towards only one goal, above all others: blurring the distinction between developable and non-developable zones, so that construction – the industry that ‘motors the economy’, and also doubles up as a main source of revenue for political parties – can take place pretty much anywhere at all… ODZ, or no ODZ.

How did it achieve this? For starters, by splitting the Planning Authority into two uneven halves: the PA on one side (where it wields all the real power); and a toothless, largely voiceless ‘Environment and Resources Authority’ on the other: whose only discernible function is to create the superficial impression that this sector is being ‘regulated’ from an environmental point of view.

With hindsight – not that we needed much at the time – the net result can be seen to be… surprise, surprise… more ODZ development, not less.

In 2016, for instance, this newspaper revealed that a staggering 70% of all ODZ permit applications had been approved by the PA board, riding roughshod over all objections raised by the ERA. These developments ranged from “new agricultural stores, to the regularisation of illegally built rural structures, to the redevelopment or extension of farmhouses, to swimming pools, to ancillary farm developments…’

I am unaware that the full square meterage of all those ODZ approvals – all of which took place on Labour’s watch, as a direct result of its own policies – has ever been measured. Something tells me, however, that it would work out at a heck of a lot more than ‘one metre’.

And this – not the 2006 ODZ extension – is the one policy decision that is directly to blame for what Moviment Graffiti, in yesterday’s protest march, rightly described as ‘construction madness’: a policy devised by Labour, with the specific aim of encouraging as much ODZ development as possible.

In some respects, its effects have been more catastrophic even than George Pullicino’s 2006 ‘rationalisation scheme’. For the PN’s tactic was to turn ODZ into developable land… and while it was (and still is) indefensible: at least, it preserved the general concept of having areas of land that could not be developed under any circumstances. A lot less land, perhaps; but ‘ODZ areas’ still existed after 2006.

Labour’s policies, on the other hand, have managed to erode even that meagre little precaution. With the PA now approving ODZ permits like it was the latest planning fashion – and, even more damningly, with the Appeals Board behaving like its sole reason for existence was to overturn most of the 30% of applications that actually get rejected – we can’t even realistically say that we have any non-developable land at all.

Never mind ‘extending by a single metre’ – there is not a single square inch of Malta’s entire territory that we can safely declare to be safe from construction havoc in future. Anyone can apply for a development permit, literally anywhere they like (note: the PA doesn’t even look into such issues as whether the applicant owns the land, or has a legal right to develop it)… and, statistically speaking, they have a 70% chance of getting their permit approved: either immediately, or on appeal.

All the same, however: the MEPA demerger, on its own, cannot be held responsible for the full extent of the rape of Malta’s countryside right now. Another thing Borg conveniently omitted from his calculations were his own government’s direct contributions to this development frenzy: largely (but not exclusively) in the form of infrastructural projects.

Before we even get to the Central Link project – which, paradoxically, represents an even greater loss of ODZ land (mostly agricultural) than the 2006 extension – there’s the minor detail of Muscat’s government unilaterally choosing an ODZ site, at Zonqor Point, for the American University of Malta campus (speaking of which: how many square metres was that, does Ian Borg reckon? More, or less than one?).

The real problem with that decision, however, was not the choice of land itself; but the justification. Joseph Muscat candidly admitted that he chose that parcel of land – and not, say, another within the development zone – precisely because the land was ‘undevelopable’, and therefore ‘cheap’.

How’s that for ‘not extending the development zones by a metre’? Leaving aside that Muscat also coined an entirely new definition for ‘undevelopable’, right there… the entire approach simply razed the entire concept of ‘protected’ land to the ground.

If even our government considers pristine, virgin land to be there only for the purposes of speculative development… how can we begrudge any old average ‘kuntrattur’ for reasoning the same way?

I reckon that is partly what Sandro Chetcuti meant, when he urged the members of his Malta Developers’ Association to ‘make hay while the sun shines’. (And boy, have they made a lot of hay…)

Coming back to the original question, though: suddenly, it doesn’t quite matter all that much who was ‘first’ to embark on such an insidious, ruinous strategy. The fundamentally more important question, at this stage, is… who is responsible for it now?

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