Fixing a broken planning system

Democracy may be imperfect, but it remains the best system we have - and planning should not be an exception

That there is a problem with the planning system is already widely recognised: not just by the media and general public alike, but also by the government and all the relevant regulatory authorities.

In fact, the powers-that-be no longer even deny the existence of such problems. Instead, they shift the blame onto the 2006 local plans, which are to this day invoked as an alibi for the status quo.

In reality, however, the goal posts have consistently shifted ever since the Planning Authority’s inception in 1992: through an accumulation of policies under various administrations, culminating in a 2015 reform which effectively opened up most spaces to the development ‘free-for-all’ we are witnessing today.

Yet we still have to hear a single official or politician defending the status quo with conviction. After Tuesday’s approval of 88 apartments in Balzan, this leader decried the system as ‘broken’. This followed a Planning Commission meeting in which architects on both sides gave such widely different interpretations of policies – some vague and others specific – that the general public was left at a loss.

Ultimately, the decision fell to the commission’s three appointed members, who approved a project that was vehemently opposed by residents, as well as the Balzan local council.

So perhaps the time has come to ask ourselves: how can we fix this broken system? Reacting to our Wednesday editorial, former ERA chairperson Reuben Abela raised a fundamental question: “After 30 years, is it time to hand back direct responsibility to the politician for such decisions, so that nobody keeps hiding behind smokescreens? Should decisions be taken by local councils, as happens in the United Kingdom?”

Here lies the crux of the matter. Over the past few years, politicians have been keen to distance themselves from the planning process. To avoid ‘hard choices’, both government and Opposition have stopped sending their representatives to Planning Board meetings: leaving such decisions to be taken by boards composed mostly of government appointees.

Apart from looking more like an open dereliction of political responsibility, this also removes democratic accountability from the system altogether.

Unfortunately, what we are left with is a system where governments set the tune through appointments, which condition experts and contaminate the entire planning process.

To avoid this, we need a clear separation of roles. In order to maintain the balance between accountability and technical expertise, every application should still be processed by the Planning Authority: with technical experts determining whether the proposed development is in line with policies or not.

The PA (together with other regulatory authorities like ERA and the Superintendence for Cultural Heritage) should also have the power to send projects back to the drawing board, until requirements are satisfied.

But the final decision should be taken by democratically accountable bodies like local authorities: following public hearings, town-hall meetings, and possibly, local referenda.

In short, the PA should retain the right to reject projects in clear violation of policies; but should not have a final say in approving those it deems are within policy parameters.

Moreover, laws need to be strengthened to further curb against abuse. For example, applications seeking to sanction illegalities in ODZ land should no longer be accepted; ERA should have veto powers on ODZ developments; and the SCH should have the final say on developments which impact scheduled buildings, and archaeological remains.

Of course, democracy is not perfect and this would come at a risk, as developers could try to condition local councils: even by gaining footholds in community life. But so far, most councils in Malta - irrespective of political leanings - tend to support residents, and dedicate time and money to address their concerns.

There have been examples of councils seduced by developers; but when this happened, the councillors also had to face the wrath of angry residents, holding them accountable.

Despite the risks, however, this system would make it hard for decision-makers to hide behind smokescreens, as they do today. A decision taken by a council is more representative and democratic, than one taken by boards composed of three (or often two) government appointees.

Local plans also remain crucial in determining what kind of development takes place in different localities. Reforming the local plans may well open a can of worms, as property owners are bound to exert pressure to benefit from any reform. One safeguard for this would be the need for a two-thirds majority in parliament for any extensions of development zone boundaries.

Moreover, the plan for each locality should also get the final approval by local councils, following town hall meetings. The Gozitan experience has already shown that the ‘one size fits all’ approach to planning has clearly failed us. One cannot have the same planning policies applying to Msida, in Sannat or Gharb. Each locality should ideally have a local plan which reflects the aspirations and needs of its citizens: including local businesses, cultural organisations and residents.

The bottom line, however, is that democracy may be imperfect: but it remains the best system we have; and planning should not be an exception. With proper safeguards and checks and balances in place, democratization may actually help us fix the broken system.