Divorcing planning from environment

It remains to be seen whether Robert Abela’s decision to have a separate planning minister will truly bring about any meaningful change in Malta’s contentious planning regime

File photo
File photo

In 2020, one of Robert Abela’s first key decisions as Prime Minister was to re-integrate the planning and environment portfolios – which had been ‘demerged’, under Joseph Muscat – in what was seen as a bid to tilt the balance away from the construction lobby.

At the time, many felt that Abela was signalling his intention to give the environment more priority in planning decisions. And environment minister Aaron Farrugia started out on a positive note: drafting a new rural policy regulating ODZ developments, among various other steps in the right direction.

But the impression would be short-lived. Right up to the electoral campaign itself, the PA was still issuing controversial permits such as Joseph Portelli’s gargantuan development in Sannat; moreover, Farrugia’s rural policy still remains in limbo, two years after it was drafted. 

Nonetheless, these pitfalls were not caused directly by Abela’s decision to remerge environment with planning. It was more the case that Farrugia showed little political will to scrap planning rules facilitating development in urban areas; or indeed, anything that might hinder more construction on the island, in general.

As such, it makes little sense to simply roll back the situation to how it stood before, as Abela seems to have done, by once again separating the planning from environment portfolios.

In Abela’s new cabinet, the planning sector will now get its own ministry, headed by Stefan Zrinzo Azzopardi, whose portfolio also includes ‘public works’, but – significantly – not major infrastructural and capital projects, which now fall under the responsibility of Aaron Farrugia himself.

On one level, this will ensure that Zrinzo Azzopardi’s main focus will indeed be on the planning sector.  But while this may be a sign that planning reforms will be a priority for the new administration, Zrinzo Azzopardi himself remains an unknown quantity. 

The question therefore becomes: will he forge his own identity as the minister who finally revamped the planning sector, and put a stop to abuses once and for all? Or will he simply act as Abela’s ‘Yes Man’, in such a sensitive sector? 

If it is the former, how will the new minister strike a balance, in a sector where Labour is caught between ever-increasing resistance by local communities – even in its own heartlands – and, on the other hand, powerful lobby groups which curry favour in the halls of power?

Besides, with no actual environment responsibility to even answer to, Zrinzo Azzopardi himself will be under far less pressure than Aaron Farrugia to rein in the planning sector. Even on a psychological level, it is always easier to pin down an environment minister for planning misdeeds, when that minister is politically responsible for the environment to begin with. 

But when the minister has no official obligation to deliver on the environmental front at all, the question of direct political culpability becomes much harder to determine.

Naturally, it is too early to tell how Zrinzo Azzopardi will acclimatise to the role. But one key issue bound to test Labour’s environmental credentials, will surely be that of land reclamation: a decision which has implications not just on planning, but also on marine ecology and infrastructure. 

Once again, however, the chain of ministerial command is by no means clear. This sector appears to be split between no fewer than three ministries: that of Miriam Dalli, who is now responsible for ERA; Aaron Farrugia, whose portfolio includes Projects Malta; and Zrinzo Azzopardi, as the PA will still have to set the planning parameters for coastal development. 

Nor is land reclamation the only sector to be spread out between various ministries. Perhaps the most glaring change implied by Abela’s new Cabinet was the integration of environment, energy and enterprise into Miriam Dalli’s mega-portfolio: which – on the plus side – ensures a cohesive environmental policy with regards to climate change and Malta’s waste commitments, all in the capable hand of an experienced politician.

Farrugia, on the other hand, must now fill the shoes of former infrastructure minister Ian Borg. Coming fresh from his environment portfolio, he will surely be expected to show more sensitivity than his predecessor, especially with regard to the environmental impact of road and infrastructural projects such as the proposed Gozo tunnel; the new Paceville road network; the proposed flyovers in Msida, the proposed metro system; and many more beside.

In short, Farrugia now risks finding himself in the unenviable position of lending a ‘green face’, to the very projects that environmentalists love to hate.   

Nonetheless, while Abela’s Cabinet choices certainly do raise questions, they suggest that his main priorities will be on delivering urban greening projects, and implementing crucial climate and waste targets which are intertwined with strategic choices in the energy and traffic sectors.

From that perspective, it remains to be seen whether Abela’s decision to have a separate planning minister will truly bring about any meaningful change in Malta’s contentious planning regime; or whether it simply betrays a preference for retaining the status quo. 

And if, once again, it turns out to be the latter case: the popular disgruntlement that has already started eating into Labour’s super-majority, may yet prove to be its Achilles’ Heel.