[ANALYSIS] First come, first served at the petrol pump. But will the ERA push reform further?

LONG READ • 1,500 words | Changing goalposts may seem like the Labour government is listening. Or have the fuel service rules simply appeased the first round of applicants? It’s up to ERA to propose changes to other policies on ODZ

ODZ petrol station approved in Triq l-Arznu, Maghtab
ODZ petrol station approved in Triq l-Arznu, Maghtab

Will changes in the fuel stations policy apply to the 10 pending applications which are being processed according to the current policy regime? This is the big question facing the government. 

The changes include a downsizing of the site area allowed from 3,000sq.m to 2,000sq.m, an increased distance between permitted petrol stations, removing the loophole allowing petrol stations in rural areas opposite industrial zones and a sharper distinction between brand new and relocated petrol stations.

The new policy as proposed by ERA effectively bans new petrol stations in the ODZ. Therefore if the rules come into force now, all pending ODZ applications including the one in Luqa discussed last Thursday will not be approved.

Surely not approving pending applications earmarked to fit the criteria of the 2014 policy would send a shiver down developers who bought land with present policies in mind. They would feel cheated if the policy is changed right in the middle of the planning process especially since some of the pending applications pre-date others which have already been approved.

But if a distinction is made and the PA continues assessing present applications through the old policy, the government would be creating two classes of applicants: those served by present policies and those who will face a stricter regime.

By endorsing a change in goalposts for petrol station applicants proposed by ERA, Jose Herrera has surely emerged politically stronger, proving that he is not giving way.

He also places the Planning Authority in a quandary when faced with applicants who rushed to reap the benefits of the present policy – any permit approved under the current policy will be seen negatively, approved by a policy so defective the government had to change it. Even if pending applications are processed under the old policy, the board would be under greater pressure to refuse these applications. For how can the public accept that applications are processed through a defective policy?

Full of loopholes

Revising the fuel stations policy casts a dark shadow on the policies rushed through by the newly-elected Labour government in 2013.

While still in its honeymoon the Planning Authority approved a series of policies regulating tall buildings, rural development, hotel heights, fireworks factories, fuel stations, urban development and chairs and tables in front of restaurants.

These policies were meant to fill a policy vacuum left by previous PN administrations which preferred ad hoc approval of individual projects. Yet rather than addressing this major shortcoming these policies seemed tailor-made to kick-start a construction boom.

The fuel station policy was originally aimed at regulating the relocation of existing petrol stations from residential areas. Instead, the policy was designed in a way to facilitate the approval of brand new petrol stations through well-crafted loopholes like that allowing ODZ development opposite and adjacent to industrial areas and areas of containment.

By the PA’s own admission these changes to the original draft were made following “meetings with individuals.”

History repeating itself?

In this case, the PL may be in the same position of post-2008 PN governments which were facing a backlash after the building boom of the mid-noughties. They then tried to mend the negative impact of their pro-development policies through the MEPA reform approved in 2010.

In so doing they ended up alienating developers who were denied the chance to do what others had done before them before the government decided to close the tap.

In one case the Prime Minister himself intervened to issue a conservation order to change the goal posts to save Transfiguration Avenue in Lija from increased building heights foreseen in local plan changes.

The PN’s Damascene conversion also came as a result of electoral difficulties faced by the Gonzi administration after the 2006 extension of building boundaries which resulted in rising anger among “pale blue” voters. Added to this was the electoral threat posed by AD still in its heyday.

This led the PN to change tack through more restrictive planning policies after 2008. But this time it failed to get any substantial credit for more restrictive policies after 2008: among environmentalists the PN’s credentials were tarnished by past decisions, and among developers the party faced a creeping perception that only a restricted circle were benefitting.

Like the PN, Labour may become more sensitive to environmental issues when pressure started to bear in local communities where it was electorally stronger. This was clearly the case with the government’s decision to drop plans for the extension of the Bulebel industrial estate in Zejtun.

A much tougher test case will be the approval of the mega high-rise development in Pembroke, a Labour-led locality where concern on over-development is rising. In such a case the Labour government will have to make a clear choice between the demands of the local community as opposed to development and honouring a land deal with the db Group.

This makes this case more problematic than popular protests against the Manoel island project in Gzira. In that case Muscat managed to strike a balance between the local community and the developers in the comfort that the deal with MIDI was signed under a PN led government.

Yet does the government have more to lose by turning green?

The intensity of feeling

One may well be misled by the favourable reaction on the social media to the Graffiti protest, which reflects widespread concern on the construction frenzy in Maltese society.

Alongside concerns on traffic, corruption and the number of foreigners emerges as one of the main grievances in a context of economic growth and high trust ratings for the government in office.

Muscat ticked all the concern boxes of pre-2013 Maltese society, so he now may see this as an invitation to start addressing the concerns emerging as a result of a development model he pushed himself.

Unlike concern on corruption, concern on environmental issues tends to cut across the political divide and most environmentalists who lead these causes have a track record of opposing development under different administrations.

It may also be easier for civil society to mobilise on soft environmental issues than on more complex concerns like good governance, which although intimately related to land use issues are more likely to become politicised along partisan lines.

Moreover, the latest surveys show that concern on over-development is highest among undecided voters and those intending not to vote. At 16%, concern on the environment and construction together have now emerged as one of the top three concerns along with traffic and immigration. 9% specifically referred to construction while 8% referred to the environment in general. Concern on construction rises to 14% among undecided voters.

Concern on construction and over-development only started picking up in MaltaToday surveys in March 2017 when 4% mentioned this problem.

Whether this translates into substantial political change depends on the intensity of feeling behind these surveys. One may well interpret rising concerns on construction as a reflection of the decline in concern on bread and butter issues which are more likely to trigger changes in voting patterns.

Moreover, environmental issues and even concern on construction itself tend to be generic and do not reveal other electoral dynamics. For example, while people may grumble against development especially when they are on the receiving end of noise and mayhem, this may not alter their voting patterns.

The cost of changing tack

On the other hand planning policies which favour developments like new petrol stations, chairs and tables in front of restaurants and the construction of countryside structures may well change the vote of those benefitting from these policies. So does the appreciation in value in land which comes as a result of the policy changes.

We tend to overlook that thanks to these policies a considerable number of people have won the lottery.

In the case of petrol stations, the government is not faced by angry local communities but by sporadic action by activists.

Sure enough Muscat is PR-sensitive and does not like its narrative of ‘positivity’ tainted by protests. In the face of the massive Zonqor protest, the government responded by scaling down the ODZ development from 90,000sq.m to 18,000 sq.m. Subsequently, the government backtracked from a local plan revision set to tweak ODZ boundaries and some major ODZ developments like the old people’s home in Wied Ghomor which was turned down in the face of opposition by local communities.

Yet an abrupt change to these policies may well alienate strategic segments of voters which shifted from the PN to the PL simply because it is perceived as being more pro-development. This is why the revision of the petrol stations policy is tricky for government.

The petrol station proposed in Luqa
The petrol station proposed in Luqa

At this stage, the government may well be making the electoral calculation that enough people have benefitted and it is time to set the house in order. Whether this reasoning will extend from petrol stations to other policies remains to be seen.

Now it’s up to ERA to propose changes to other policies like the guidelines regulating rural development, which include several loopholes to accommodate ODZ developments.

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