Pumping the environment dry

In an atmosphere where planning laws are forever being relaxed, and blatant illegalities approved or sanctioned by the country’s designated environmental watchdog... one can only expect a surge in illegality across the entire spectrum

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

Plans for another new fuel station outside the development zone, this time in the region of Mgarr, have once again cast a spotlight on the rapid and steep decline in environmental protection in recent years.

This would be true of any threat to protected public land or natural heritage: but the case in question warrants closer inspection, as it seems to embody several problems at once.

The first and most immediate is the potential loss of our limited precious open space.

The application by Hal Mann Vellsix Group seeks to demolish a small rural structure on agricultural land in Triq L-Imġarr, Mġarr, and build facilities –including an auto parts shop, cafeteria, car wash, fuel pumps and garages – over a 6,793 sq.m site. Before even turning attention to the proposed use of the site, the application is already in breach of existing planning laws and policies.  The land falls outside the development zone, and is currently occupied by protected agricultural land. The proposal is, in fact, to legalise an illegal project.

The only legal grounds for waiving planning laws in any project – already problematic in itself – concern ‘the national interest’. One can understand arguments to that effect when considering emergency proposals for infrastructural projects serving the public good – water production through reverse osmosis would be an example – but it is patently ridiculous to argue that a petrol/service station in any way serves a ‘national purpose’.

Moreover, the proposed station is just 1.5 kilometres away from another planned fuel station on the same road.  Nor does the application foresee the relocation of an existing petrol station that is already located outside the development zone.

This raises an additional problem. The approved policy on petrol stations only allows new petrol stations within, opposite or adjacent to designated industrial areas and Areas of Containment. In this case, the existing petrol station is located opposite a land location designated for the construction of “hydroponic systems for the growing of plants” and “pesticide stores”. 

It is plain to see, therefore, that the new application also violates the planning laws’ own policy on petrol stations. Yet this policy is already being applied to relocate other illegal facilities.

Clearly, this is an application that should not even be considered at all. And to make matters worse, similar applications by the same company to develop the same land had already been rejected by the PA in 2009. This in turn points towards a much broader and more insidious threat: there is a pattern that emerges from all this repetition.

Put simply, in an atmosphere where planning laws are forever being relaxed, and blatant illegalities approved or sanctioned by the country’s designated environmental watchdog... one can only expect a surge in illegality across the entire spectrum: a laissez-faire attitude, which is now so brazen that we are no longer even attempting to hide it any more.

There are other considerations too. Beyond legality issues, how does this drive to flood Malta with new petrol stations square up with government’s responsibility to solve the traffic problem? Or with its commitments to explore the possibility of alternative-energy transportation in future? Transport Minister Ian Borg recently told Parliament that 67 applications for new petrol stations had been made between 2013 and 2017. Of these, 43 have been approved by the Planning Authority. Surely, there is a discrepancy between a presumed drive towards electric cars, and the approval of so many new petrol stations is such a short time?

Lastly, the same case also pinpoints an intrinsic problem within Malta’s entire environmental heritage infrastructure. It points towards the final failure of the decision to separate the twin powers of ‘planning’ and ‘environment‘ at the authority formerly known as ‘MEPA’.

The PA’s own Environmental And Resources Authority is among the proposal’s most outspoken critics: branding it “unacceptable”, and arguing that it raised “significant environmental concern in view of the scale of the proposed interventions”, which would take up undeveloped rural land for urban or commercial uses and result in “further deterioration of the landscape”.

The regulator also said that approving the development would introduce new “urban-type/commercial-type activities not considered essential or compatible with the surrounding natural area”.

In view of so many objections, there can only be one reason why this application was not thrown out immediately. Along with so many other measures to dilute environmental protections – including the amendments to the Structure Plans, often to facilitate ODZ development rather than limit it – decisions are now taken solely on the basis of how much money they will generate – and for whom – in the short term.

Unfortunately, this same attitude now underpins almost all the present administration’s actions and policies: not just with regard to the use of public land, either.

Prime Minister Muscat himself has admitted as much in the past. Defending the sale and development of public land in the Zonqor case, he had said the deal was only financially viable “because it was public land, and therefore cheap.”

Therein lies the problem: the true worth of public land is not measured in money. Nor can money buy back what we lose of it today, in this unbridled scramble towards the bottom line.