10 major planning tests for the Planning Authority under Robert Abela

Will the advent of a new Labour government see the balance tilt from Muscat’s pro-business approach to one putting local communities first? A number of pending planning decisions will test whether it will be business at usual at the Planning Authority, whose board members are mostly government appointees

1. Will DB get its tower?

A permit for a 38-storey apartment tower and a 17-storey hotel issued in 2018 was revoked by the law courts due to a conflict of interest involving realtor Matthew Pace, whose vote on the PA board was vitiated by his financial interest in the project.

Following the revocation, the DB group resorted to the old trick of splitting the application in two, a new application for the demolition and excavation of the ITS site, while pressing on with the original high-rise application.

The Local Councils Association, presided by Labour councillor Mario Fava, described the application to excavate the site before a full permit is issued, as a “tactic by the developer to create a commitment on the site so one decision leads to the next”.

The application represents a major test for the PA, which is bound to reflect on the new Prime Minister’s environmental credentials. The project was the result of the transfer of public land through a deal signed by former Minister Konrad Mizzi and was first approved in a controversial board meeting in which former Executive Chairman Johann Buttigieg used public funds to pay for a private jet to ensure the participation of a board member.

The approval bred resentment in the Labour-leaning locality of Pembroke community whose housing estates will be overshadowed by the new development.

2. The roads to the Paceville towers

A 1.5 km Pembroke tunnel was first proposed in the application for the DB development, which along other developments in the area is expected to generate 7,000 new car trips.

This has now been integrated in an application presented by Transport Malta which proposes two other tunnels for northbound traffic – a 500-metre link from Regional Road to the Pembroke entrance junction further up the road at Għar Ħarq Ħamiem valley, and a shorter tunnel from Regional Road to Triq Santu Wistin in the heart of Paceville.

A fourth 115-metre tunnel is also being proposed from Church Street near Millennium Chapel to St George’s Road next to Palazzo Spinola.

According to Infrastructure Malta the project is aimed to reduce traffic in several residential roads in Pembroke, Swieqi and St Julian’s “whilst developing the necessary infrastructure to meet the area’s future transportation requirements”. The Superintendence for Cultural Heritage has warned about potential negative impacts to military and historic buildings in the area, as well as threats to the structural integrity of the subterranean cave of Għar Ħarq Ħamiem, which is of ecological importance.

  A proposed deal for the Corinthia development brokered by former tourism minister Konrad Mizzi has been on hold since April
A proposed deal for the Corinthia development brokered by former tourism minister Konrad Mizzi has been on hold since April

3. Setting the price for Corinthia’s apartment blocks

A proposed deal brokered by former tourism minister Konrad Mizzi has been on hold since April. The deal presented a year ago foresaw the additional development of up to 100,000sq.m of luxury apartments and offices on the site of the Corinthia and Radisson hotels, against the payment of €17 million for the changes requested to the original deed signed in the 1990s when development in the area was restricted to tourism accommodation.

A draft masterplan seen by MaltaToday included a total of twelve blocks ranging from eight to 21 floors. Amidst criticism by both environmentalists and the Malta Developers Association, the government engaged a new international firm to make a fresh valuation of the St George’s Bay peninsula in St Julian’s, currently occupied by three Corinthia hotels.

But the new valuation was never announced and the deal has yet to be ratified by parliament. The project will also require changes to the local plan for Paceville, which earmarks the peninsula solely for tourism purposes.

4. More apartments on Jerma site?

In 2019 the government asked the PA to prepare a development brief for the Jerma site in Marsaskala. The guidelines issued for public are suggesting that a maximum of 40,000sq.m should be allocated to residential development. The Marsaskala local council has consistently called for development to be restricted to tourism accommodation. The PA is currently considering an application proposing a high-rise development consisting of 166 apartments and a 250-room hotel.

The development statement was presented on behalf of Porto Notos Ltd, a company owned by developer Charles Camilleri, known as il- Franċiż, and Pierre Lofaro. In July, MaltaToday had reported that a group of investors fronted by Gozitan entrepreneur Joseph Portelli was in the process of buying the Jerma hotel site for a reported €90 million.

5. The PN’s curse: zoning development at Nigret, Mosta and Swatar

The massive extension of building boundaries by the Gonzi administration in 2006 is still disturbing the peace of local communities, faced with applications to set the parameters for development on a number of large open spaces.

For 13 years after the boundary extension, developers are still presenting applications to set the density of development proposed in these areas. Zoning applications to be decided in the next months include an enormous 122,900sq.m site in Swatar on farmland now earmarked for seven-storey-high commercial and residential blocks, residential development on 12,000sq.m of farmland in the Nigret area in Zurrieq and a 40,000sq.m tract in the vicinity of the historic Cumbo tower in Mosta.

But to the general relief of environmentalists already facing battles on multiple fronts, Planning Minister Ian Borg had told MaltaToday in February that the government will not be changing the development boundaries last enlarged in 2006, in the “foreseeable” future. Speculation on a pending revision of boundaries has been rife ever since the Labour government commenced a revision of the local plans upon being elected in 2013.

Protest galore: since 2014, Labour’s expansionist planning policies has provoked mass outrage among environmental activists and residents’ groups
Protest galore: since 2014, Labour’s expansionist planning policies has provoked mass outrage among environmental activists and residents’ groups
Countless protests have been held against the development of Zonqor Point for a private university, the AUM, and against over-development
Countless protests have been held against the development of Zonqor Point for a private university, the AUM, and against over-development

6. 700 odds days since, still waiting for new petrol pump policy

The government still has to ratify proposed changes to the policy regulating ODZ petrol stations which effectively bans such developments on agricultural land. The policy, if approved, will be binding on all pending applications, including one recently proposed application to relocate the village square petrol station in Siggiewi to a 1,600sq.m ODZ site along Mgr Mikiel Azzopardi road.

But approval of the new policy will exclude any further take up of ODZ agricultural land. 717 days have already passed since the government announced the revision of the policy.

7. What future for the American University? 

In November the Planning Authority board turned down the proposed American University of Malta (AUM) extension in Bormla as the developers refused to budge from plans submitted in the application which foresaw a new building which would have obstructed views of the historical fortifications and a dormitory set on a public square.

Sadeen Group has now appealed against this decision. The land in Bormla and Zonqor was transferred to Sadeen Group by the Muscat-led administration in 2016  which promised a  major game changing project in the south of Malta. The low number of students (143 according to the latest data) attracted by the new university remains a far cry from the projected target of 710 students by its third year when it was granted a five-year licence in 2016.

The contract signed with the government stipulates that four years after the completion of all phases of the development, the university must have a population of at least 4,000 students.

The reform of the controversial rural policy has been in the offing since 2017
The reform of the controversial rural policy has been in the offing since 2017

8. St Julian’s as the new ferries?

The St Julian’s local council and environmental organisations are opposing an application for a hop-on, hop-off ferry berth run by the owners of the Fortina hotel proposed in the vicinity of a swimming area in Balluta. St Julian’s mayor Albert Buttigieg has warned that if this project is approved the bay will end up like Sliema Creek. On its part ERA has ordered studies on the impact of the proposed jetty catering for a 33 metre boat on the marine environment. But this does not address the concerns of residents who fear the transformation of Balluta bay into another Ferries.

9. Land reclamation: the next frontier?

In November on the eve of the political crisis, environment minister Jose Herrera announced that an €11 million study of the sea around Malta will form the basis for a proposal which he intended putting before Cabinet in December. He also announced that the study has selected five  or six locations where land reclamation is possible and causes least environmental damage.

MaltaToday had published an internal report by ERA showing that a selection exercise had identified an area extending between Xghajra and Portomaso in St Julian’s, which includes waters off Sliema, Valletta and Cottonera including the Grand Harbour, for large-scale land reclamation. Although Qalet Marku in Bahar ic-Caghaq has not been identified for large-scale land reclamation, it was still identified for breakwaters, marinas and touristic development. So far, the government has not excluded the development of tourism or residential development on reclaimed land. The proposed Gozo tunnel which, if approved, would create more than one million tonnes of construction waste will also add more pressure for land reclamation.

10. How long will it take to reform the rural policy?

Following the controversial approval of a villa and a pool proposed by developer Joe Portelli on a pristine site in Qala, the Planning Authority announced a public consultation meant to reform a policy approved in 2014.

The reform of the controversial policy has been in the offing since 2017 when after expressing his “alarm” at the findings of a MaltaToday probe which showed that ERA had been ignored by the PA in 69% of approved ODZ applications, Environment Minister Jose Herrera had announced the appointment of a ministerial board tasked with investigating the 2014 policy.

The controversial rural policy paved the way for dubious developments in the countryside by opening loopholes for owners of countryside ruins, which can now be turned into villas. The most controversial aspect was the policy allowing the transformation of countryside ruins into new dwellings if the owners could prove past residential use.

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