A small victory for common sense

Access to open spaces is more than just a luxury: it is a fundamental prerequisite, and with proper planning policies in place, it should not be too difficult to ensure that an acceptable amount of construction continues to take place

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

The PA’s rejection of a development in Wied Ghomor – regarded as ‘the last green lung’ in the San Gwann, Swieqi and St Julian’s area – marks a small but important victory in the struggle to conserve Malta’s threatened natural and cultural heritage.

Wied Ghomor is the site of a disused hardstone quarry, set amid a green and tranquil valley separating three highly congested, urbanised areas. As so many other parcels of land, it has often been targeted by development applications, to the consternation of nearby residents.

Had it been approved, this application would have resulted in the development of a five-floor, 133-bedroom private retirement home, a gym, a restaurant, a hall and a parking area, besides the creation of a road cutting through the valley.

The development was unanimously turned down by the Planning Authority board in May 2016. The applicant appealed against the decision; and as last Thursday’s decision deadline loomed, various environmental NGOs and community initiatives such as ‘Wirt San Gwann’ – together with all three local councils – vociferously urged the PA to reconfirm its original decision.

As Swieqi mayor Noel Muscat warned, the project would continue to eat up “the last patches of open space in the town and its surroundings”, and destroy a peaceful residential community with new access roads.

Though it eventually proved groundless in this particular case, the concern itself is more than justified by our recent history of such decisions. The Planning Authority has a tendency to first reject applications, only to approve them at a later stage.  No doubt, in some cases the reversals may very well be justified. But the regularity of the occurrence – coupled with specific PA policies which seem to facilitate development as an end in itself, to fuel the economy – suggests a bias in favour of the applicant in such cases; and against the legitimate concerns of the communities surrounding the developments.

From this perspective, last Thursday’s decision makes a very welcome break with this unwholesome tradition. It also illustrates the power of communities in influencing public decisions. And that is no small achievement, for until recently communities have all too often felt powerless in the face of large commercial or speculative interests.

Such community initiatives have taken place before... though rarely with the same outcome. Similar concerns failed to halt questionable mega-development projects in the past: the ITS project in Pembroke. the Trade Fair grounds in Naxxar; the Paceville project, Mercury House, Town Square in Sliema, Portomaso, etc… going all the way back to the redevelopment of the Sliema seafront in the 1980s and 1990s.

More recently, a comparable community initiative resulted in the granting of partial access to the foreshore on Manoel Island, after the local council objected to the erecting of a barrier to keep the public out of a much-needed public space.

All this seems to indicate the concretisation (if you’ll excuse the pun) of a groundswell movement to reclaim public spaces which are essential to society’s physical and psychological well-being. As such, they serve as a reminder of how much is irreplaceably being lost to a construction drive which seems to have little or no regard to its impact on residential communities.

It is admittedly an uneasy and volatile situation, to which no satisfactory long-term solution seems to be forthcoming. To be realistic, we have to acknowledge that our economic model offers no real alternative to the allure of easy profits offered by the traditional ‘demolish-and-rebuild’ approach. We must also be cognisant that the current economic boom owes much to the liquidity that such investments yield to the local economy.

But while these considerations are real and pressing, we must also be realistic about another situation. In our haste to reap the financial rewards of such investments, we often fail to properly appreciate the effect so much development is having on our society’s most basic needs. Access to open spaces is more than just a luxury: it is a fundamental prerequisite. And with proper planning policies in place, it should not be too difficult to ensure that an acceptable amount of construction continues to take place, without unduly depriving communities of their vital needs.

So while this recent PA decision is commendable, in itself it falls short of addressing the underlying malaise. A cursory glance at the PA’s track record suggests that such decisions have less to do with the implementation of properly thought-through policies, than with the desire to avoid political controversies and polemics. It is a naturally a good sign that the country’s regulatory authorities occasionally take stock of the popular mood, and public opinion in general. But the approach has so far been too piecemeal.

What is needed is a clear framework policy which establishes unequivocal parameters for large-scale developments, taking into account the surrounding community context.  It is in fact the lack of such a policy that forces local communities to take action.

Until a proper policy is in place, we can only expect more popular resistance to such projects in future; and for these initiatives to be fully supported by a sympathetic media that understands and shares those concerns.

The ball is therefore clearly in the policy-makers’ court.