Anything but an overhaul of the 2006 local plan

The Nationalist Party seems to be avoiding any commitment which puts it into conflict with developers or even landowners who believe it is their right to realise their land into profit

The issue of overdevelopment in Malta represents a thorny problem for a Nationalist Party that is still trying to find its feet after eight years in opposition.

It remains a fact that this single problem – one of the country’s greatest environmental challenges today, which is now having a measurable effect on the public’s peace of mind – can be traced directly to the local plans approved by the PN government in 2006; and also, the development guidelines issued by Labour in 2015.

At face value, the PN’s proposal of seeking a two-thirds majority for ODZ developments may be welcomed as an additional layer of democratic scrutiny meant to protect the Maltese countryside; but under closer scrutiny, the proposal ends up raising more questions than it answers.

Foremost among these is that the proposal stops manifestly short of an overhaul of the 2006 local plans. In this sense, the PN seems to be avoiding any commitment which puts it into conflict with developers or even landowners who believe it is their right to realise their land into profit. Instead, it has opted for a complicated proposal which – if ever implemented at all – will be limited only to what the PN defines as ‘major national projects’.

Yet the vast majority of ODZ applications actually involve farmers applying for a store or a reservoir on their fields – a practice that is clearly open to abuse, but which also often also includes legitimate, bona fide applications. It remains unclear, for instance, whether even legitimate applications would have to seek parliament’s approval, under the proposed guidelines.

But to quell concern among farmers and countryside dwellers alike, the PN has also made another cardinal mistake; that of committing itself not to take away any existing ‘development rights’, introduced by the 2006 local plans.  This means that the PN has endorsed the same rural policy – widely criticised for loopholes allowing the transformation of mounds of rubble in to villas – which is currently being changed by the present government. 

Meanwhile, it is also unclear at what stage parliament will actually intervene in the planning process. Will it intervene before or after the completion of the planning process? Will parliament have the power to overturn the PA’s refusal of an ODZ development, if both parties agree? Or will parliament’s power be limited only to confirming or overturning an approval by the same planning authority? 

It is imperative that any intervention by parliament takes place after – and not before – a final decision by the Planning Authority. Otherwise parliament would be taking on a role which is best served by an independent authority. 

Where parliament should really focus its energies, however, is on strengthening the independence of regulatory authorities; rather than taking their place itself. 

One may still envisage a reform giving parliament the power to ratify decisions on major ODZ projects already taken by the PA (which in turn raises questions on what yardstick will be used to distinguish between ‘major’ and ‘minor’ projects.

As things stand today, the only viable yardstick is whether or not the project requires an Environmental Impact Assessment). In this sense, adding a layer of parliamentary scrutiny would certainly be a welcome step. 

But it must be made clear that a refusal by the PA should be final; and parliament should only ratify approvals. Still, the PN would be opening itself to a risk: that of a disruptive opposition which may vote against infrastructural projects simply out of spite.

It is therefore imperative to strike a proper balance between better democratic controls, and a sane planning policy.  For example: it is much more urgent to give more powers to local councils in determining applications in urban areas. Such a reform could also foresee local or national referenda as an additional layer of scrutiny for major projects approved by the PA.

Another way to curtail government’s power would be to ensure that public land for major projects is not allocated to private companies before planning approval: as happened in both the Sadeen development in Zonqor (which still has to be approved), and the DB development in Pembroke (which was approved after land was transferred to the group).

The same mistake is now being repeated over the Marsaskala marina, and also the Gozo tunnel: where a bidding process has commenced before a planning application has even started.

These are the main issues that have reduced the planning process to a farce in this country. But with an opposition that is so clearly reluctant to ‘rock the boat’, as it were, it seems that not even a change in government will have any material effect on the situation.

It is, however, incumbent on the Opposition – if its environmental credentials are truly to be believed – to come up with logical, practicable proposals that address the real issues concerned; and also, rectify past mistakes made by former PN governments.

This is clearly something that Bernard Grech’s PN has yet to find the courage to do.