Everything is permissible

 Hardly a day goes by without a reminder of our cultural past being consigned to demolition, with no regard for the resulting overbuilt environment

(Cartoon: Mikiel Galea)
(Cartoon: Mikiel Galea)

The expression ‘kollox jghaddi’ – ‘anything goes’ – has long been a byword (if not outright justification) for laxity in almost all walks of life. Along with ‘mhux xorta?’ – ‘so what?’ – it denotes tacit acquiescence to a situation that can’t be altered: something to be said, with a shrug of the shoulders, when faced with any ongoing problem that seems to be beyond our national ability to solve.

The same expression, however, can also be used in a very literal sense. ‘Everything passes’... in the sense that ‘everything is permissible’, because the benchmark for approval is always so low.

This is especially true when applied to Malta’s increasing urban overdevelopment issue, which is now reaching crisis proportions. This month, it was reported that the Planning Authority issued almost twice as many development permits in 2017 than in 2016 – rising from 6,245 units to 9,112 (a 45% increase). On closer scrutiny, it turns out that the approval rating has also skyrocketed. Between January and December 2017, the PA board rejected only seven out of 75 applications: an approval rate of 90%. Individual board members were also revealed to approve applications in over 90% of cases – more remarkably still, the Chairman of the PA was overruled in at least 11 of his 18 objections in the same year.

The statistics speak for themselves: the likelihood of getting a planning application approved is as close to 100% as it is possible to be. It seems that, despite all the necessary precautions existing on paper, our planning laws are so heavily skewed in favour of development, that it is almost unheard of for an application to be refused.

Naturally, without knowing the individual details it is impossible to assert how many (if any) of those 90% should not have been approved. But one does not need to look far to find examples of fully legal developments that either defy various planning laws, or which run counter to existing planning policies.

A recent example concerned the PA’s remarkable decision to double the storey-limit – from 16 to 32 storeys – for the Mercury House project in Paceville... at a time when a Paceville masterplan is still being drawn up, and we have no final national high-rise policy. The project envisages 48 hotel rooms, 275 serviced apartments and around 3,300 square metres of shops. Yet the developer was asked to pay only 50,000 euros as an environmental offset... a fraction of the worth of a single apartment.

At the other end of the scale, only yesterday the PA green-lighted a public al fresco dining area, despite warnings by the Malta Tourism Authority that the area was unsuitable for such venues. Instead of acknowledging that the structure obstructs a public walkway, the PA made its approval subject to ‘safety bollards’.

On top of the bonanza of permits issued by the Planning Authority, we have also witnessed a wholesale collapse of the country’s environmental and heritage watchdog institutions. The planning demerger has resulted in a clear mismatch of powers wielded by the planning and environmental sides of the equation. The same breakdown on PA board vote patterns also reveals that the Environmental Resources Authority was outvoted by roughly the same margin: i.e., 90% of the time.  It seems that permits are routinely issued, irrespective of any contrary recommendation by ERA or the Superintendence for Cultural Heritage, and, at times, even irrespective of standing regulations.

Many of these cases involve ODZ permits and permits for development in Urban Conservation Areas.

Even without these statistics, it is clear that the thrust of the PA is skewed in favour of development. All kinds of permits are issued at the moment, with no control whatsoever. It may be a simplification, but the overwhelming impression is that anyone with money, especially if willing to spend that money in Malta, is granted anything they ask for. One need hardly add that this goes beyond the issue of planning permits – our entire economic policy is geared up in the same direction.

All this comes at a frightening cost that will be borne by future generations. Hardly a day goes by without a reminder of our cultural past being consigned to demolition, with no regard for the resulting overbuilt environment. And with each passing week, newer and larger tracts of unspoilt land are considered for the development of questionable projects: more fuel stations, in a country that is supposedly phasing out vehicle dependency. In our mad scramble for a quick buck, we are not pausing to see the many contradictions in our approach.

This attitude finds correlatives in other areas of national negligence: such as our equally ‘kollox jghaddi’ approach to health and safety issues on the workplace, which is underpinning the same basic dereliction of duty.

Worst of all, the ‘kollox jghaddi’ mentality only ingrains this erosion into the fabric of the entire system. We cannot afford to keep acquiescing to this laxity. We need to get down to drawing up proper, long-term planning policies... and implement them with the required rigour.

And we need to act fast. Otherwise, in a few years’ time there may not be very much left of our environment or heritage to conserve.