Malta needs a proper planning policy

A reform of policies is expected from an alternative government which promises to be greener

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

The Nationalist Party has called for all land outside development zones to be fully protected, unless two-thirds of Parliament vote in favour of specific projects as exceptions.

To prevent an opposition party from permanently stifling a vote, PN leader Simon Busuttil added that such Bills should be subjected to a two-thirds vote for a maximum of two readings, after which the government would be able to pass it with a simple majority.

At face value, it is welcome that the Opposition party would take such a clear and unambiguous stand against further ODZ development. But while the proposal should be welcomed as an additional safeguard, a number of questions need to be asked.

It is unclear whether Parliament would be voting on applications which have already been refused by the Planning Authority. This would be dangerous, as it would imply that parliament can overrule a supposedly autonomous regulatory authority. In fact, the PN’s proposal only makes sense if applied to projects which have been approved by the PA, after careful consideration of planning policies.  

Moreover the introduction of such a requirement should not be used as an excuse to retain existing policies which facilitate development in ODZ. A reform of policies is also expected from an alternative government which promises to be greener.

Indeed, such reforms could provide greater protection than the two-thirds mechanism. If SPED and other policies are re-worded with the aim of closing loopholes and exceptions, the approval of ODZ projects would become a rarity and probably limited to infrastructural developments like roads, sewage and energy infrastructure and other necessary developments. 

With proper planning policies in place, we would not even be discussing commercial developments in the ODZ. Due consideration must therefore be given to revising existing policies.

On a separate note, the PN should explain further what kind of projects would need a two-thirds majority in parliament. The word “projects” is vague, and may be interpreted to mean different things.

The PA approves hundreds of minor ODZ developments – which include development related to agriculture and hamlets – most of which are harmless but some of which may be prone to abuse. Surely, such minor applications do not merit discussion in parliament. 

Above all, Parliament cannot turn itself into another planning institution. In this sense, only projects of a certain size, or which have a substantial impact, should be referred to the highest institution. 

Moreover, the PN proposes that projects may be still carried out by a simple majority if the government fails to garner a two-thirds majority after two consecutive readings. This is being proposed to avoid gridlock. But this makes it even more imperative for the PN to ensure that only projects with the prior approval of the PA are discussed in parliament. Otherwise the PN would be creating another planning loophole for developers.  

What should certainly require a two-thirds majority, however, is any inclusion of new land to development boundaries. At present, changes to local plans only require a simple majority. In the case of extension of development zones, it would make sense for the PN to amend its policy to ensure that in these cases a two-thirds majority is required. Having a gridlock on this aspect of governance would avoid a repetition of the 2006 extension of boundaries, the consequences of which are still being felt.

Once these uncertainties are ironed out, there should be room for consensus on the spirit of the PN’s proposal on ODZ projects: especially in view of the PM’s declaration that his government will not be proposing any project in the ODZ in this legislature. 

By introducing such a mechanism we would be ensuring that any project like that proposed at Zonqor Point would face another hurdle. This would signal a new social pact with regard to the protection of common areas. For ultimately Malta is a small country whose ODZ areas should be treated like a major national asset.

One area that will not be addressed by the PN’s proposal concerns developments proposed within the development zone. Busuttil’s declaration that he will not be supporting Marlene Farrugia’s motion for a moratorium on such developments, until a master plan comes in place, is therefore less welcome. 

Malta lacks a functional mechanism to assess the cumulative impact on the country’s infrastructure of a number of high rise developments, all being proposed at the same time and in conjunction with minor construction projects facilitated by relaxed planning rules.  

Although high buildings may have benefits in creating open spaces around them by expanding vertically instead of horizontally, this is not what is happening in the country.  What is happening is that large-scale projects are being proposed amidst a construction boom of medium rise development in many Maltese towns. This boom is taking place thanks to policies approved by a PN government, which relaxed building height restrictions in 2005.

Reassessing the impact of continuous and endless construction should also be on the agenda of the PN, if it seriously aspires to have greener credentials. Otherwise the PN may end up emulating Joseph Muscat, who has always proposed high-rise (and land reclamation) as an alternative to ODZ development.

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