How about reforming the planning sector while we’re at it?

If granted, this permit will only serve as the starter pistol for the same old greedy scramble that has already reduced so much of our natural landscape to an eyesore

Maybe I’ve been watching all the wrong interviews; but throughout the campaign for this weekend’s Labour leadership election, I have not heard either of the candidates express a single opinion about the environment.

They’ve been asked to comment about all sorts of other issues: drugs, prostitution, abortion, euthanasia…  for all the world as if their own private views on any of those things would make a jot of difference anyway (note: Lawrence Gonzi often expressed his own private opinion about divorce; but it didn’t stop him becoming the prime minister on whose watch divorce was actually introduced in 2011).

But then, on an issue that has risen to become a major national concern over the past seven years… neither Chris Fearne nor Robert Abela seems to have anything to say.

When they talk about ‘continuity’ and ‘change’, for instance, they never hint at which of the Labour government’s environmental policies they would ‘change’ or ‘continue’.

Yet much of the environmental degradation we have witnessed recently can be attributed directly to policies adopted by the present administration: as part of a doomed planning ‘reform’ which succeeded only in opening up entire tracts of ODZ land for speculative development.

The proposed project now threatening Fomm ir-Rih – one of the few remaining coastal areas which can still be described as ‘unspoilt’ – is itself a direct result of the ill-fated ‘Rural Policy in Design Guidelines’, approved in 2014.

According to this policy, any roofless and long-abandoned countryside ruins can be redeveloped into villas (or, in this case, an entire tourist village); all the owner has to do is prove that the structures had once served as a dwelling, and hey presto! Development can go ahead, even outside the development zone.

Applied to Fomm Ir-Rih, this means that the dilapidated ruin of a tiny hamlet that used to exist there – now consisting only of the  collapsed remains of three or four houses – can be transformed into “16 large suites, of variable size between 30sq.m and 80sq.m, a reception, kitchen and breakfast area over 329sq.m and a 50sq.m swimming pool.” Slap bang in the middle of one of Malta’s most picturesque and idyllic stretches of countryside, as yet unblemished by any major development.

Now: I don’t want to jump the gun, and simply assume that the Planning Authority will indeed grant the permit; we are, after all, still only at application stage. But I am not exactly hopeful, either… for more reasons than just an apparent total lack of concern by those who might be our new prime minister as of next Sunday.

The first (and most urgent) reason is that the above reform permits any developer – not just Ballut Blocks – from proposing development on the same site in future. Places like Fomm Ir-Rih are not under threat because of any one particular project; it is the entire planning process that consistently exposes them to the risk of annihilation.

So even if this application is rejected, there is nothing stopping the same developers (or different ones) from trying their luck again with fresh designs further down the line. And this will not change, for as long as the present policies remain in place.

Secondly, the Rural Policy in Design Guidelines have to be viewed as part of a broader institutional reform of the Planning Authority: which included a demerger between its ‘planning’ and ‘environmental’ competencies, resulting in the formation of the Environmental and Resources Authority.

Despite the name, the ERA turns out to have limited authority when it comes to deciding planning applications. Even if we could place our full trust in its determination to protect the environment - and I’m sorry to say we can’t – the ERA has time and again proved ineffectual.

In 2016, the PA board overturned its objections in 61 out of 88 ODZ development decisions... suggesting (in case it wasn’t already obvious enough) that the entire scope of the reform was to minimise environmental safeguards, and encourage as much development as possible.

With the same structures in place today, the eventual development of Fomm ir-Rih appears unstoppable… especially seeing as how the people who should be opposing the loudest (i.e., the Mgarr local council) seem to have already given the project their blessing: a factor which carries significant weight, when it comes to a vote being taken by the PA Board.

Even more worrying are the stated reasons for this support. Mgarr mayor Paul Vella urged us to ‘look on the bright side’; arguing that “those who live nearby could also benefit from the project if long-overdue maintenance work on the utilities infrastructure there was carried out as a result of the development.”

This is a strange thing for a mayor to say: considering that it is part of Vella’s own job as to see to it that the existing utilities infrastructure gets all the maintenance work it needs… without having to wait until a new tourism project is announced.

But his argument also points towards the long-term effects of any such development taking place. A new tourist accommodation complex entails a demand for a whole new infrastructure - wider roads, the provision of water and electricity, etc – that would radically alter the landscape’s rural character: inviting more development in future, on the grounds that the entire area will have by then been ‘disturbed’ anyway.

This was, in fact, the same sort of concatenation that ruined the once pristine hamlet of nearby Bahrija – now unrecognisable under layers of unsightly urban sprawl. From this perspective, it is unthinkable that we are even considering the possibility of repeating that mistake in Fomm ir-Rih.

For make no mistake: if granted, this permit will only serve as the starter pistol for the same old greedy scramble that has already reduced so much of our natural landscape to an eyesore.

Either way, however, it is clear that our existing urban planning laws – in their present, disfigured form - do not offer enough protection for places like Fomm Ir-Rih. Perhaps the time has come for the two contenders in Sunday’s leadership race to finally admit – like they seem to be doing in other areas – that Labour’s 2014 reform of the planning regime was also a total and unmitigated disaster… and to finally do something about the irreversible loss of our countryside, before there is quite frankly nothing left of it to save.

More in Blogs