Safeguarding open space and local plan changes

The economic outlook, the country’s demography, the state of the environment, and people’s expectations today are different from those that underpinned the local plan changes 17 years ago. The time has come for a wholesome revision of the local plans

Prime Minister Robert Abela closed the lid once and for all on the Marsaskala yacht marina controversy during his budget reaction speech. 

He said the local plan will be changed so that the creek could no longer be considered for the development of a yacht marina. 

The commitment comes after last year’s decision by the government to withdraw its plans for a massive yacht marina inside Marsaskala creek that would have compromised several swimming areas and changed the appearance of the bay. 

Abela’s latest pledge to amend the local plan responds to a strongly-worded letter that was disseminated by the Marsaskala Residents’ Association recently in which it asked for a legal commitment that the creek will not be developed into a marina. 

Another commitment to provide greater safeguards to the surrounding environment was made in relation to plans at Wied Żnuber where industrial land was going to be passed on for the construction of a small airstrip for model airplanes. 

It is evident that Abela was addressing two issues that have caused headache in the two Labour-leaning localities of Marsaskala and Birżebbuġa. 

There is a hint of political expediency in Abela’s decision, especially considering that local elections are due next year and widespread disgruntlement risks punishing the Labour Party. By conclusively closing these issues, Abela has removed two sources of irritation. 

But even if the motivation for the local plan changes is political, the decision is commendable nonetheless and shows that government can be responsive to legitimate community concerns. 

In the case of marina Abela had tested the waters by first issuing a call for interest, then withdrawing it and now sealing the decision with local plan changes. One can say that government is mending a problem of its own creation, creating unnecessary anxiety in the community. But still Labour’s ability to listen when faced with backlash remains one of its greatest strengths. Rather than persisting in error, Abela humbled himself made a U-turn and turned a problem into an opportunity. 

However, the decision to amend the local plans to prevent development taking place in Marsaskala creek, which follows that of Ħondoq ir-Rummien in Gozo, creates somewhat of a precedent the government has always strayed away from. 

So far, Abela has always argued that the 2006 extensions of development boundaries cannot be reversed since people with lands in those extensions acquired pretended rights and would be owed compensation. 

Abela has never produced the legal advice he has been given to support this argument. To be fair, he is not alone in arguing this way – former ADPD chairperson Carmel Cacopardo also argues that people cannot be stripped of the rights they were given without compensation. This argument has never been challenged in court.  

Abela’s justification for the change in policy on the Marsaskala marina is that the land and sea affected by the development belongs to government and it has since changed its outlook. 

In this sense, government should not stop with Ħondoq and Marsaskala.  

Abela should set up a working group with the task of identifying government land that is currently primed for development and determine whether this should be protected as open space in crowded communities. It would be a pro-active approach that tries to avoid controversies from erupting in the first place, while at the same time ensures that government still has land available that it can use for projects of overriding social and economic benefit in the future. 

However, the latest commitment instigates a wider debate on the adequacy of the existing local plans, which hark back to 2006. These plans, which set the parameters of what can be developed and where, do not respond to today’s reality characterised by a radically changed society. The economic outlook, the country’s demography, the state of the environment, and people’s expectations today are different from those that underpinned the local plan changes 17 years ago. The time has come for a wholesome revision of the local plans to reflect modern-day expectations and needs. Gozo is a clear example of a region where the one size fits all policy approach to building heights has not worked and clearly does not tally with the idea of an island of villages. 

Unfortunately, an exercise to amend the local plans that was started soon after the Labour Party came to government in 2013 never came to fruition. 

Admittedly, revisiting the local plans is also an invitation to reopen Pandora’s Box since pressure will be made to have lands added to the development boundaries rather than removed.  This is what happened in 2006 when government was flooded with such requests and in 2013 when according to data tabled in parliament requests for ODZ land in Gozo to be included in the development zones totalled 497. 

This can be addressed through SPED policies. The current SPED already rules out any increase in the total amount of developable land. This provision can be further strengthened by a commitment to retain the status of ODZ land as it is. 

But the government should also lead by example and not allocate land it owns for real estate purposes as has happened in Mellieħa and could happen in Qajjenza. In a country where land is so scarce government land is better used for urban greening or social and recreational purposes.