Wanted: a bipartisan consensus on planning reform

Instead of lashing out at individual critics of its environmental policies, government would be wise to start paying heed to the growing murmurs of environmental discontent

Instead of lashing out at individual critics of its environmental policies, government would be wise to start paying heed to the growing murmurs of environmental discontent.

Recent history strongly suggests that there is a price to be paid, for ignoring such warnings. Indeed, the decline of the once-formidable Nationalist Party (now a mere shadow of its former self) can be traced, in part, to the fall-out of its ill-fated decision to extend the development boundaries in 2005/6.

Admittedly, the Labour Party seems far away from suffering the same fate; even if its recent success in polls may be more of a reflection of the PN’s internal problems, than of widespread satisfaction with its own performance.

But it cannot be ignored that so many former Labour stalwarts have recently joined the chorus of environmental angst. Former Prime Minister Alfred Sant, former President Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca, and even current President George Vella have all voiced their own concerns, at the sheer pace of excessive, unbridled construction this country has witnessed in recent months and years.

Ignoring these (and other) remonstrations may have serious consequences, for a government that – while undeniably scoring successes, in terms of economic management – has clearly lost control of Malta’s ‘political-industrial development complex’.

But even in the absence of any such political price to pay: it is still incumbent on the present government to live up to its own pre-electoral environment promises (not to mention a Constitution that obliges it to ‘safeguard the natural environment’).

It is now painstakingly clear that the regulator formerly known as the ‘Malta Environment and Planning Authority’ has failed in its primary objective, since being established by the former Nationalist government in the early 1990s.

This failure was only made more manifest, following the post-2013 decision to demerge the respective planning and environmental branches: a move which gave significantly more power to the former, while relegating the latter to the status of merely ‘rubber-stamping’ pre-ordained planning decisions.

The results of this flawed policy-change are now manifest all around us; and – as a recent French ‘Arte’ documentary so painfully illustrated – the extent of Malta’s overdevelopment problem can no longer be simply swept under the carpet.

Overdevelopment has robbed the Maltese nation, not only of so much of its character and priceless natural heritage; but also of its collective peace of mind. The daily stress of living in a near-permanent building site – coupled with the genuine anxiety caused by accidents and mishaps, such as the fatal Birkirkara collapse of 2019 – are now having measurable, deleterious effects on the quality of life in Malta.

Simply put: past efforts at reforming the planning regime have clearly failed. A new (and more successful) approach is desperately needed.

But we must also acknowledge that the path ahead is not easy. Recent statistics seem, at a glance, to belie the usual excuse that the construction industry is a major contributor to the economy. Nonetheless, it is futile to deny that ‘investing in development’ has now become a way of life – if not an escape route from material poverty – for many Maltese families.

As Din L-Art Helwa president Prof. Alex Torpiano put it, in the aforementioned documentary: “In the past, we used to build only when needed; today, construction has become an investment opportunity… and as such, it has become an end in itself.”

It is useless for government apologists to denounce such statements as ‘acts of treachery’. Prof. Torpiano is right: coupled with the country’s geographical limitations, Malta’s addiction to development, as an economic motor in its own right, is clearly a ticking time-bomb.

But there is another problem putting spokes in the wheels; and that is Malta’s traditional bipartisan divide itself. This much was conceded even by former Finance Minister Tonio Fenech (ironically, a member of the same Cabinet that approved the infamous ODZ extension of 2006).

Among the speakers in the Presidents’ State of the Nation’ conference, Fenech admitted that “awarding planning permits wins politicians votes”, while defending the environment does not.

This is sadly true – at least, in the short term – and while Fenech himself may not be the best-placed politician to actually make the argument, this doesn’t lessen the accuracy of his overall diagnosis.

As such, government would do well to seriously consider his proposal for a bipartisan pact, enshrined in the Constitution, to overhaul local plans and protect the environment.

But enacting such a plan would require a radical shift in policy, necessitating a bipartisan agreement that binds different administrations to overcome the hesitancy politicians face in dealing with the issue.

This, therefore, is the challenge facing Prime Minister Robert Abela. Unless he wishes to go down in history as the prime minister who oversaw the final act in Malta’s environmental degradation, he must find the political courage to overcome our political divide, in the nation’s best interest.

And he must do it soon: before – as Dr Alfred Sant so ominously warned – “there is nothing left to save”.