Environment protection at an all-time low

According to the SPED, development may be permitted in ODZ areas ‘where no other feasible alternatives exist in urban areas’

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

A number of recent legal amendments have raised serious questions concerning the present government’s handling of environmental issues. Taken together, these changes give the impression of an administration hell-bent on dismantling the country’s already limited environmental protection infrastructure. 

The most striking example (but by no means the only one) was the replacement of the Structure Plan with a document entitled ‘Strategic Plan for the Environment and Development’ (SPED): which seems designed to accommodate a number of controversial development projects. 

According to this document, development may be permitted in ODZ areas ‘where no other feasible alternatives exist in urban areas’. SPED also states that projects of a “sustainable” nature can be permitted in ODZ land “as a last resort where it is essential for the achievement of sustainable development”. 

Moreover, SPED contains no clear, enforceable policies, but rather a set of policy directions that remain vague and undefined. Even these objectives are sparse in detail and in many cases subject to being overridden on arbitrary grounds, such as ‘the national interest’.

Environmentalist NGOs have unanimously deplored this reform of the Planning Act, yet were only given 24 hours’ notice to submit their objections. The government also ignored a plea to postpone the approval of this document until after the parliamentary summer recess: which would have given the Opposition and other interested parties more time to discuss and possibly improve the new law.

Nor is it clear why the government was in such a hurry to place SPED beyond discussion. One possibility is that the new plan was aimed at justifying a number of developments promised by the present administration: including the controversial plan to build a university campus partly on ODZ land.

This would not have been legally possible under the previous Structure Plan. SPED, however, seems tailor-made to pre-emptively justify such developments on the basis of their presumed economic benefits.

Meanwhile, a host of other dubious decisions have further eroded the government’s credibility on the environmental front. Perhaps the most bizarre twist concerns changes to the planning law that will allow people to apply for development permits even on land belonging to third parties, without obtaining the owners’ consent. 

If approved in its current form, this new law would even allow people to apply for development permits on public land, without seeking the consent of the government.

One sincerely hopes this is a mere oversight which will be corrected in due course. Otherwise, this would mark a return to the pre-2010 situation when no proof of land-ownership was required to submit an application. Even the Malta Developers’ Association – which, by definition, generally regards development more positively than most environmental NGOs – has sounded the alarm over this proposal, insisting that the obligation to seek the consent of owners must not be removed.

Architect Simone Vella Lenicker likewise described the change as an undesirable proposal. “The current system whereby the applicant must declare that he has obtained the owner’s consent to submit an application for development permission has cut out a significant amount of abuse. This should be retained,” she said. 

To date, however, there is no indication that the government will take these suggestions on board. As with SPED, the new policy seems in part designed to override objections to development, even of the more sensitive nature. At this point, one can only seriously question the present government’s commitment to safeguard the environment – a promise that was given much prominence before the election, but which now seems to have been completely forgotten. 

Apart from the very real concerns all these proposals raise with regard to the environment, there are also serious political ramifications to some of the proposed changes. Under the new legislation, the autonomy of the Malta Environment and Planning Authority will be severely undermined. 

The present law, approved in 2010, states that the authority’s chief executive officer – a post currently occupied by Johann Buttigieg – may be dismissed by the authority if he does not achieve the “targets and objectives” set for him by the Malta Environment and Planning Authority. 

But under the new legislation, it will no longer be the authority itself that is empowered to remove its CEO… but rather, the Parliamentary Secretary in the Environment Ministry. This is not just unwise from an environmental protection perspective, but also downright dangerous. By subordinating MEPA to the whims of a minister, the new law – expected to be approved after the summer recess – will utterly annihilate the ‘arms-length principle’, whereby such authorities should be kept entirely independent of the government.

Other controversial decisions all seem to point in the same general direction. It was recently announced, for instance, that projects related to public health will be exempt from ordinary planning procedures. Given that the government is committed to building two new hospitals, the intention is clearly to dilute the environmental protection infrastructure to facilitate the government’s own projects. 

Far from ‘prioritising the environment’, it would seem that the intention is in fact the reverse: prioritising construction and development at the expense of the natural landscape. 

If the Muscat administration intends to go down in history as the most environmentally unfriendly Maltese government of all time, it is clearly heading in the right direction.

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