Planning Authority lifts secrecy on major projects

​In a major victory for transparency, the Planning Authority has reversed its decision to stop the publication of information on applications for major projects until the completion of an EIA

In the PA regime, an application is only considered ‘complete’ when the application form is fully filled and all documentation required has been fully submitted
In the PA regime, an application is only considered ‘complete’ when the application form is fully filled and all documentation required has been fully submitted

In a major victory for transparency, the Planning Authority has reversed its decision to stop the publication of information on applications for major projects until the completion of an Environment Impact Assessment.

It was MaltaToday which in May 2019 revealed that the Planning Authority took the unprecedented step to restrict public access to the details of planning applications which are not yet ‘completed’, purging its information system from applications deemed to be incomplete and which had yet to be validated by the authority.

Since then, responsibility for the PA has been transferred from the portfolio of infrastructure minister Ian Borg back to environment minister Aaron Farrugia, who over the past months has taken several steps to restore the institution’s credibility.

This included information on a number of major projects including the American University of Malta’s Zonqor university campus, a 20,000sq.m extension of the Noah’s Ark zoo in Siggiewi, and a proposed road through the woodland near Fort Chambray in Gozo among many others.

In the PA regime, an application is only considered ‘complete’ when the application form is fully filled and all documentation required has been fully submitted.

While the restriction of information is understandable in cases where the PA had still to issue a screening letter which informs developers whether applications conform to existing policies, an absurd situation developed where the public was denied any information on major projects until they are validated upon completion of an Environment Impact Assessment.

In comments to MaltaToday, a spokesperson for the PA acknowledged the fact that applications requiring screening before validation may also lead up to the requirement of an EIA, therefore meriting that documents are made available to the public during this “pre assessment stage”.

EIAs regulated by the Environment and Resoruces Authority also require a public consultation period during which these documents need to be available. All documentation is now being made available for those applications on which the PA has already issued an official screening letter.

A screening letter offers an opportunity to developers to change or withdraw applications in breach of policy. In this way, while developers will still benefit from confidentiality until the screening letter is issued, they will not benefit from any secrecy if they proceed with their plans.

Back in 2019, environmental NGOS had described the restriction of information by the PA “an evident breach of the Aarhus Convention” which provides for public access to information. “The PA’s lack of transparency smacks of its evident contempt for those stakeholders who are not developers or applicants,” lawyer Claire Bonello had said.

The PA had cited ‘legal reasons’ to justify these changes, saying it was only when required documentation has been fully submitted and payment affected, that the authority “is legally bound” to make public the application by publishing them on the Department of Information website, the Government Gazette and by affixing a site notice on site.

More in Townscapes