‘Success’ should be measured by ‘well-being’ | Vince Cassar

Newly appointed ERA chairman VINCE CASSAR argues that any attempt to ‘strike a balance between environment and economy’, should begin with an economic model that ‘values wellbeing, as a measure of success’ 

Last month, the Court of Appeal revoked a development permit in Santa Lucija - which had been approved by the Environment and Planning Review Tribunal - on the basis that the Planning Act obliges the PA to take into account (inter alia) “environmental, aesthetic and sanitary considerations.” Do you share the view that this constitutes a ‘landmark’ ruling, that will alter the way planning applications are decided in future?

When I was chairman of the Planning Authority, I myself had always argued that: ‘we are losing our streetscapes’. I said that, both during PA board meetings; and also earlier, when I was President of the Kamra Tal-Periti. 

In fact, it has been going on for decades. The first real ‘building boom’ began in the 60s and 70s: when we experienced ribbon development, with a sprawl of new buildings. Then, during the 80s, construction seemed to take a lull. But the publication of the Local Plans, in 2006, gave rise once again to an appetite for construction and development.

As a result, we started to lose our characteristic two- and three-storey buildings; and in their place, started to see low rise buildings; ‘egg-crate developments’; and subsequently, high-rise buildings.... until the point where we are fast losing our traditional streetscapes, to what is generally known as ‘pencil-development’.

If you look at the typical Maltese streetscape, today: we still have quite a few cases where there would be an entire street of two-storey houses – complete with traditional balconies, etc. – but then, all of a sudden, someone comes along, and applies to build a five-storey building right in the middle of it. And just like that, the entire streetscape is ruined...

Now: the answer I always used to get, whenever I raised such objections in the past, was: “How can you deprive those applicants of their ‘right’, as given to them by the Local Plans, to demolish their own, two-storey house... and build a five-storey one instead?’

But to me, that is just ‘not on’. Because in reality, the Local Plans do not give any such ‘right’ to applicants. All they do is set a maximum limit, to the amount of storeys that can be applied for in any given locality. And if the maximum limit is set at ‘five storeys’: it doesn’t mean that the applicant has an automatic ‘right’ to be given a permit for five storeys. It just means that ‘five storeys’ is the most that can be applied for; but it is – or should be – up to the PA (and in particular, the case-officer) to decide how many storeys to actually permit.

So to come back to your question: the law-courts have now decided – and there is no going back from it – that people do not, in fact, have the ‘right’ to build up to the maximum level, permitted by the Local Plans...


If I may butt in: the same ruling also points out that “although a development may adhere to the height limitation [...] it could still be in breach of other policies which cannot be over-ruled simply because the height limitation is respected.”

Precisely. So yes, this was a very good ‘test-case’; and I assume that the Planning Authority will now have to abide by that decision by the courts...


And yet, for all these years, we have been hearing the same old mantra about ‘the need to strike a balance between the environment, and the economy'. At a glance, this ruling also seems to confirm – if any further confirmation were needed – that this ‘balance’ has never really been struck, at all. But do you even agree with this particular approach to urban planning, to begin with? Do you see your own role, as ERA charman, to be a ‘balancing act’, between ‘environmental’ and ‘economic’ concerns? 

First of all, it is crucial to recognise that the environment supports the existence of society, as a whole – which, in turn, creates economic activity to sustain itself. So I would say that one cannot really function successfully, without the other. 

I might also add that the proper conservation of Malta’s environmental resources – including not just ‘landscapes’, ‘valleys’, etc.; but also our heritage, both natural and cultural – is itself an essential pillar of the economy: both to support a sustainable tourism sector; as well as to provide the much-needed natural open spaces for citizens... most of whom live, and work, in an urban environment.

And this recognition is also what underpins ERA’s most strategic policy-directions – the ‘Vision for Malta’s Environment’, and the subsequent ‘National Strategy for the Environment’ – which are based on the fundamental consideration that the environment is ‘critical for our wellbeing’; and recognise the need to support the development of an economy which values such wellbeing, as a ‘measure of success’. 

The same approach is also shared by Malta’s Economic Vision 2021: wherein one of the five main pillars focuses on ‘sustainable economic growth geared towards quality-of-life improvements’: partly, to be achieved through redefining the measures of success. 

And a similar thrust is echoed in Malta’s National Employment Policy, too. In a nutshell, all those policy documents converge on the need to ‘redefine our measure of success’ [in planning]: in part, by adjusting the country’s economic model to something more holistic... something which includes other metrics, apart from financial ones: such as physical and social wellbeing, the environment and the quality of work. 

That all sounds well and good, on paper. But as you yourself pointed out earlier: it’s not really working in practice, is it? From your own experience as former PA chairman – and now, as ERA chairman – what do you attribute this failure to, exactly?   

That’s what I was coming to. A ‘balance’ [between environment and economy] can only ever be ‘struck’, when – first of all – development is justified on the basis of ‘need’; and secondly, when it is carried out, moderately and suitably, in designated urban areas, whilst ensuring that Malta’s limited but important environmental resources are effectively protected.  

However, the difficulties arise when certain economic pressures depend continuously on ongoing land development, and land-use changes, which do not respect the country’s environmental carrying-capacity. 

And regrettably, today’s policies - which should have regulated and controlled development, to that effect - ended up permitting additional scattered buildings and structures throughout the countryside: including the conversion of genuine agricultural buildings, for other (non-agricultural) purposes; as well as the systematic sprawl of ad hoc urban development beyond the Development Zone boundaries, amongst others. 

This has landed us in a situation where our urban areas, irrespective of their size and location, are becoming less ‘green’; and more characterised by over-development, and traffic congestion. 

At the same time, the ongoing development pressures – especially in the countryside, and coastal areas - have continued to increase the rate of rural land take-up; consequently, increasing adverse impacts on the landscape, natural sites, the topography and rural/coastal character, and so on.  

So if we’re going to talk about ‘balance’: to me, the most important issue is to achieve a ‘balanced reality’ out there, for the people and the environment; and not just a ‘balanced policy document’. 

And if a ‘balanced reality’ necessitates greater efforts, in terms of protection of the environment: then I would say that,  in particular circumstances, sectoral and land use planning policies should be stricter in favour of conservation; and not vice-versa. 

That would, presumably, necessitate a review of the current Local Plans (which environmentalists have been advocating for years, anyway). Do you agree that those plans are now ‘outdated’, in light of contemporary realities? If so, what changes would you recommend, specifically?

The complete set of Local Plans was finalised in 2006: that is, 17 years ago. Since then, there have been several developments, in Malta and Gozo, that have altered our urban areas and the landscape; and there have also been reviews of the Local Plans themselves: albeit limited mainly to the further planning of specific sites; or to ad hoc, localised revisions. 

Now: the Local Plans are, in fact, very important tools for decision-making, as they provide the necessary policy framework for deciding development applications on specific sites: according to their particular location, context so on.

For example: development sites which are located partly within the Development Zone, and partly ODZ, are better addressed through site-specific policies, which are tailor-made for that location... rather than by two separate general policies, like the ODZ Policy - enacted in  2014 - and the Development Control Design Policy Guidance and Standards, of 2015.

Local Plans therefore need to remain site-specific, and prescriptive, in nature; and if they are to be updated, it should be done holistically: rather than in an ad hoc, and piece-meal manner.

As for what needs to change, specifically: I would say that there are a number key considerations that the Local Plans of tomorrow should aspire to achieve. 

These include: a more suitable interpretation of building heights, depending on the specific location/context of any given development; policies which take into account the function, and size, of different urban settlements; improved quality of life; better quality design - especially in UCAs [Urban Conservation Areas] and ODZ – as well as the need to safeguard strategic open gaps; and to designate sites for additional green open spaces and public gardens... 

This brings us to your current role, as ERA chairman. Ever since the ‘demerger’ of MEPA in 2016, there have been countless cases where the ERA was overruled by the Planning Board. Doesn’t this mean that the ‘balance’ is actually weighted AGAINST the environment, in all cases? And what can be done, in practical terms, to redress this imbalance (short of ERA being given a ‘Veto’: which government has so far flatly refused to do?) 

If you’ll remember: at the sitting of the Parliament Standing Committee for Public Appointments - where I was scrutinised before being appointed as ERA chairman - I put the ‘Veto’ question to both sides of the House, directly: when I asked them, “Are you prepared, as government and opposition, to give ERA the right of Veto?” 

So yes, I certainly agree with the Veto proposal, myself. Because there are instances where you get, for instance an EIA with a negative recommendation; but the permit goes up to the PA Board, and gets approved regardless. Or when ERA itself recommends a refusal – not through any EIA – but gets overruled by the Tribunal; and so on.

Are we doing enough to ‘protect the environment’, in such cases? I would say the answer is ‘No’. At the same time, however: it doesn’t necessarily mean that ‘giving ERA the right of Veto’ is the only solution.  We could also simply implement all the existing planning policies, which already establish the roles and responsibilities of the two Authorities: including ERA’s engagement in planning decisions. 

For example, Article 72 of the DPA already establishes that planning decisions should also take environmental considerations into account - including ERA’s recommendations (amongst others). Likewise, under the EPA of 2016, ERA is defined as the competent authority for the environment; and as such, has a clear mandate when it comes to safeguarding the environment, and its resources. The latter includes ‘air, water, land, soil, sea, biodiversity, the landscape and its features’, etc, etc.

In this regard, I believe that ERA’s recommendations on sensitive development could be given more weighting: even without any ‘Veto’. The policies are already in place; all that remains is have clear legislation, which sets it down – clearly, in black on white – that the Planning Authority has to abide by recommendations of ERA.

In other words: if a development application receives a negative recommendation by the ERA: the PA should respect that decision, and refuse the permit accordingly...

At the risk of concluding with an awkward question: there is also a widespread perception, out there, of ‘political interference’ in the planning system. For instance: on the eve of the last election, the Prime Minister was feted at a private party organised by construction magnate Joseph Portelli. Do you see any connection between that, and the ‘imbalance’ we are talking about? And have you yourself ever been put under any political ‘pressure’, in your time as PA chairman?

All I can say is that: I have never been ‘approached’ by anybody, in that sense. And I have never been ‘put under any pressure’, in any other way. When it came to assessing applications, the first thing I would do was always: ‘read the case-officer’s report’; then ‘hear what the applicants, and their architects, had to to say’; and then, after consulting with all other relevant parties... I would make up my mind.  

I would then explain my interpretation of that permit application, openly, in public board meetings: so that the other members, and the general public, will know exactly what direction I’m going in: whether it’s ‘this way’, or ‘that way’... 

And if my decision is ‘No’... then I will say ‘No’: without any interference from anybody; and independently of ‘who the applicant is’.

Don’t get me wrong: I read the papers; I am aware that this ‘perception’ you talk of exists... and that names like ‘Joseph Portelli’, among others, crop up in stories about ‘political interference in the planning system’, and all that. But it’s one of those cases where: you either ‘believe it’... or ‘push it aside’, and just banish it from your thoughts completely.

Otherwise, you wouldn’t be doing justice, to the planning process as a whole...