[ANALYSIS] Land use on the electoral backburner?

After having left new local plans for completion till after the next election, the present administration has unleashed a spectre which will return to haunt the green electorate in a couple of months time. How are the parties rising to the occasion?

The only significant land use commitment made in the manifesto is that of concluding the Paceville masterplan
The only significant land use commitment made in the manifesto is that of concluding the Paceville masterplan

While promising to finalise the Paceville masterplan, which promises high-rise buildings on nine sites in St Julian's, the Labour Party’s manifesto fails to refer to the most important planning decision facing the next government.

The Labour Party manifesto does not include any commitment with regard to the completion of the local plan review process, commenced as soon as Labour was elected to power in 2013The process had attracted close to 7,000 submissions. The draft local plans were expected to be completed by June 2015. But the revision of the local plans remains incomplete and is expected to be concluded after the next general election.  

The new local plans are expected to include the tweaking of development boundaries. In a bid to achieve a zero net loss of ODZ, and therefore not be accused of enlarging development zones to appease owners who missed out in the 2006 extension, the government has hinted that it will remove some of its own lands from the development zones to accommodate some private owners of ODZ lands.

“The net impact would be zero loss of ODZ areas,” claimed government sources with the Sunday Times on the effects of this redrawing process last year. Addressing environmental NGOs on Monday Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said that some of the boundaries drawn up by the revised local plans in 2006 were “crazy” and must be redesigned. However, he insisted that any extension of development zones will be compensated by extending ODZ zones elsewhere, arguing that “some sites are simply too beautiful to be left open for construction”. Before the 2013 election Joseph Muscat had promised that ODZ boundaries “won’t be touched”.

MaltaToday reported in January that the government is under intense pressure from aggrieved landowners who were left out of the 2006 rationalisation, to have their lands included in development zones – a move that would appreciate the value of their land.

Wary of tinkering with boundaries, Environmentalists have called on the government not to revise local plans before 2026.

Paceville masterplan to be completed

The only significant land use commitment made in the manifesto is that of concluding the Paceville masterplan. The promise to enact the new masterplan is tempered with a commitment not to expropriate private land without the consent of the owners and after compensation is agreed upon.  The party also vaguely hinted at a revision of planning policies to ensure that loopholes are closed.  

The PL speaks about strengthening the Environment and Resources Authority by giving it the power to impose fines but fails to redress the imbalance of power between the PA and the ERA when it comes to the issue of permits.

Absent from the PL’s manifesto is any commitment on land reclamation which was proposed in the Paceville masterplan with regard to a posidonia meadows rich area in Portomaso.

PN commitments

The PN's  manifesto does make a number of binding commitments. These include a clear commitment against land reclamation for speculation purposes, a commitment to turn White Rocks into a Nature Park, the protection of valleys like Wied Ghomor, a halt to any development at Zonqor and an overhaul of 2014 ODZ policies to close off current loopholes. But the PN has failed to refer to the completion of the local plan revision commenced by Labour in 2013. 

The PN had already approved an environmental policy, which includes a commitment through which major ODZ projects will need approval of a two-thirds majority in parliament after the conclusion of the planning process (with third vote being taken by simple majority). The PN is also committed to introduce a skyline policy which would preclude high-rise buildings which impact on sensitive views and landscapes.

The PN is also excluding a racetrack on ODZ land but has not overruled such development within development zones.

It was the PN’s junior partner; the Democratic Party which had first proposed restoring White Rocks to the public. The Democratic Party has also distinguished itself from the PN by opposing a racecourse, something that gives the small party greater legitimacy as the guarantor of green issues in the coalition.  

As happens in other countries run by coalitions involving green parties, environmental issues are often the bone of negotiation between parties.

With regard to land use AD is proposing giving local councils the power to convene local referenda on ODZ projects, a “radical” revision of policies permitting development in the ODZ and reclaiming Manoel Island to the public.  

AD is also committed against the development of a racetrack anywhere in Malta and Gozo.  

It also refrained from a blanket exclusion of high-rise development by saying that the social and environmental impact of each individual proposal must be considered adequately and high-rise developments must be carbon neutral.  

Environment in the election

In an election where corruption prevailed over all other issues, it is no surprise that land use issues have been relegated to the back burner. 

But the perception that the government has changed the planning goalposts for the benefit of big developers is one of the reasons why the current government suffers a trust deficit on environmental issues. In this sense land use issues are part of the anti corruption narrative. 

The Zonqor point issue also represented a turning point in this legislature, with government being overwhelmed by civil society activism.

But the opposition also has a mountain to climb to make up for past mistakes. In this sense the input of its coalition partner could be crucial in recovering trust, even if some green voters may well opt for AD as a radical break with both PN and PL on this issue, at the risk of having no say in determining who will be in power when the local plans are approved.

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