Malta’s planning mayhem: What can be done?

After George Vella’s social media foray on the uglification of Żejtun, JAMES DEBONO catches up with different stakeholders to ask them what can be done to save the day amid Malta’s planning mayhem

“Anyone who suggests quick-fix solutions to resolve the crisis in the industry, particularly in relation to planning and building regulation, has not yet fully grasped the gravity of the situation”
“Anyone who suggests quick-fix solutions to resolve the crisis in the industry, particularly in relation to planning and building regulation, has not yet fully grasped the gravity of the situation”

Faced with an apartment block proposed in his own neighbourhood, President George Vella called for a review of planning policies.

His appeal came in the wake of increased frustration at an unstoppable building frenzy which has seen the PA approving more than 42,000 new dwellings since 2017 and unsightly developments springing up in every nook and cranny, breaking up the traditional skylines of towns and villages which had emerged intact during previous building booms.

The current planning crisis is the result of an accumulation of policies approved since 2005, with goalposts always widened to allow more goals to be scored by developers, and where the referee blames the badly written rules to justify how one-sided the game is.

“The rot has now spread so far, so wide and so deep that the uglification and rampant urbanization has spread to every corner of the archipelago. Nowhere is safe from the relentless onslaught of over-development,” says environmentalist and lawyer Claire Bonello, the brains behind legal challenges to a number of developments approved in the past years. She blames this on the “constant deliberate dilution of planning laws”, resulting in a situation where “basically anything may be allowed – or sanctioned”.

Key stakeholders like the Kamra tal-Periti share this anger and frustration. Chamber President Andre Pizzuto is not impressed by the President’s call for a review of current policies. “What the country needs to realise is that we never had a building regulation system, and our planning system has failed. Tweaking or reviewing them will not suffice”.

And while the President suggested that the rules and regulations may appear “good and academically justified on the statute books”, they are not in the real world. “No one qualified in related fields could ever support such a statement, not least the Kamra tal-Periti,” Pizzuto said, adding that “the result of the incompetent administration of planning and building regulation over the past 40 years speaks for itself.”

While noting that the Chamber has been calling for a reform of the building and construction industry since at least 2007, “subsequent administrations have largely ignored these calls”. In the meantime, “the built environment has been savaged during this period with a dramatic deterioration of our quality of life”. In this context “anyone who suggests quick-fix solutions to resolve the crisis in the industry, particularly in relation to planning and building regulation, has not yet fully grasped the gravity of the situation.”

Raise the bar high for developers

The consensus that something is rotten in the state of Denmark is so universal that even the Malta Developers Association is concerned. Its newly appointed director-general Deborah Schembri, herself a former parliamentary secretary responsible for planning, agrees with the President’s appeal.

Deborah Schembri was a former planning minister
Deborah Schembri was a former planning minister

“I believe that the President is here representing the plea of the common citizen. He very aptly pin-points to the source of the problem since laws, regulations and policies are what need changing given that what is being decried is perfectly legally done, blessed by development permits meted out on the basis of current legislation, regulations and policies.”

Schembri now calls for a meticulous rethink of the local plans approved in 2006, “alongside forward planning which should map the way not just to sustainable development but also to a desirable aesthetic when it comes to our streetscapes and the urban environment”.

But would developers ever agree to changes limiting their potential to build more? Schembri points out that the serious developer cannot but be in favour of such a reform simply because having a finished development in the midst of a well-thought-out urban environment would yield a much better return on investment. “It is a real pity that the MDA’s efforts to raise the bar are usually overshadowed by the few bad apples that make the headlines.”

Institutional paralysis

Yet despite the gravity of the situation in a country where the PA has approved 42,204 brand new dwellings between 2017 and the end of 2020, calls for reform are still met with an entrenched, institutional paralysis, based on the premise that development rights accumulated in the past cannot be legally reversed.

The perverse logic results in an absurd situation where goalposts can only be changed to favour the construction industry and never to restrain its ‘rights’. Since his appointment as planning minister Aaron Farrugia has taken a few timid, albeit significant steps like introducing stricter criteria for developments near scheduled buildings and changing the composition of some PA boards.

But when faced with calls for a radical overhaul he warns that reversing ‘building rights’ emanating from these policy changes will result in hefty compensation claims. “Shall we compensate these families with billions of euros to rescind the rights they acquired? Shall we take back those rights? This is why we need to sit down and have a mature discussion that goes beyond complaints of uglification and urban sprawl,” he said on Xtra last week,

Environment minister Aaron Farrugia
Environment minister Aaron Farrugia

Previously Farrugia had suggested a discussion on “comprehensive development” which would mean that people will only be able to add more storeys to their buildings if the entire street agrees to do so too. But even this proposal came with an ominous warning through which he shot down his own proposal… adding that this “would mean that a father who wants to build his son an apartment so that he doesn’t have to take out a home loan when he grows up will have to wait years and years for everyone in his street to reach an agreement.”

Is this not the perfect recipe for a stalemate?

A lame excuse to keep developers’ interests intact

Andre Callus from Moviment Graffitti describes this kind of response to strong public pressure for a change in the ruinous planning sector, as “a lame excuse behind which ministers hide in order to keep developers’ interests intact.”

While recognising that the Local Plans enacted in 2006 have had a disastrous effect on our planning and environment, and that legally they are not easy to change, the planning issues Malta faces go beyond what the local plans lay down.

Callus blames “a raft of outrageous policy changes between 2013 and 2015” which could be reversed immediately. They include the increase in building heights across the board through an “underhanded amendment” which turns permissible heights from storeys into metres, allowing developers to fit more storeys in the same height, making redevelopment a much more attractive prospect.

Andre Callus, Moviment Graffitti
Andre Callus, Moviment Graffitti

Another is the weakening of the health and sanitary regulations in buildings, allowing tall buildings in narrow streets. “Government has consistently accommodated developers’ requests to waive even those restrictions on development that had been included the 2006 Local Plans.”

In October, Moviment Graffitti presented a document containing 134 proposals detailing the changes needed, following a year of consultation with lawyers, architects, organisations, farmers and residents. Callus says all proposals are legally achievable. “Our request for a meeting with the Prime Minister and the concerned ministers to discuss the proposals were totally ignored,” he said.

Besides the need for specific policy changes, Callus called for a radically different policy approach arguing that so far, policies have been drafted from the developers’ perspective rather than from the perspective of the common good and quality of life.

“For instance, policies should establish the maximum volume of development allowed rather than the right to build the whole volume. If a policy states that up to six storeys can be allowed in a particular area, this should not give the developer an automatic right to a six-storey building. Six storeys would only constitute the limit that cannot be exceeded, but authorities might impose an obligation to build less than that amount if the context so requires.”

He also lambasts the planning and environment authorities as a “disgrace.”

“Decisions are more often than not determined by business and political interests behind the scenes. Institutional reform needs to take place, such as the way in which PA and ERA board members are appointed, if we are to stop the fast-paced destruction of our natural, agricultural and urban spaces.”

And while policy changes are important for environmentalist Claire Bonello, the crux of the matter lies in appointing the right people in decision-making boards. “Doing away with the so-called Flexibility Policy, the Hotels Height Adjustment Limitation Policy and amending the Rural Policy sensibly might be a way to start. But ultimately, laws are implemented by people. Unless those people are free from conflicts of interest and well-intentioned, legislative change will merely be an academic exercise.”