Marching against Mistrafication | Simone Mizzi

Din l-Art Helwa President Simone Mizzi coins a new word – ‘Mistrafication’– to denote the uglification of Malta, and fears the prospect of Malta being turned in to another Dubai. But does the public feel the same sense of urgency to stand up to be counted?

Simone Mizzi (Photo: Audrey Leinard/MediaToday)
Simone Mizzi (Photo: Audrey Leinard/MediaToday)

On Saturday, 30 November at 10.30am, environmentalists affiliated with a number of NGOs will be rallying together for the first public protest by civil society since the election of the new Labour government. 

Similar protests involving all NGOs had been held in 2006 when environmentalists rallied to protest against the extension of development zones by the previous administration. 

Seven years later, the grievances remain the same, with the approval of a number of controversial permits - like the 774 apartment project on the Mistra ridge - and new policies paving the way for more development in ODZ areas under the guise of 'agritourism'.

But will the general public heed the call?

Din l-Art Helwa President Simone Mizzi is optimistic about a good turnout.

"Following MEPA's controversial approval of the Mistra permit, NGOs have been flooded with phone calls, emails and messages urging us to take action to ask the authorities to show their sense of duty and responsibility."

She considers the Mistra Village redevelopment permit as the lynchpin which has galvanised the public into action at the thought of the destruction of such a beautiful part of the national landscape for "political and financial expediency".

"Let's not forget that this is a typical example of an issue spanning two administrations, with both washing their hands of it... a permit begun by one administration and concluded by the other."

The DLH President warns that the "horrific monster" which has been approved on the Xemxija ridge could pave the way for a 'Mistrafication' of Malta, a precedent which may lead to other scenic areas to fall into the same trap. 

She refers to movements in the speculation market, with land in picturesque areas such as Madliena and Gharghur changing hands at a spectacular rate in anticipation of the change to local plans and the permits which are to come.

In the Mistra case, the government is claiming that not confirming the outline permit issued in 2008 would have resulted in massive compensation claims by the developers.

If MEPA had its hands tied by the outline permit, did it have any alternative but to confirm the original decision rather than expose the country to these compensation claims?

Mizzi points out that not all MEPA board members shared the government's view that nothing could be done.

"There are a few good men on the MEPA board who said that while MEPA's hands were legally tied, morally they did not feel they were obliged to approve a development scheme which went against the legal parameters for the area." 

In fact, there were five board members who voted for a proposal which recommended that the design be revised yet again so as to make it more consonant to the landscape.   

"If two more members had voted for this proposal, the chairman would have had to pass a difficult casting vote. We still feel that a softer and more sensitive design could result in a less obtrusive and jarring set of buildings".

Mizzi refers to rumours that the developers are selling the land, as it is worth so much more with a permit for 12 floors in hand. 

"Naively of course, I hope that the next owner will take heed and come up with a new scheme, but realistically, the new owner will probably come back and yet again for more height and more width." 

DLH has called for the revocation of the Mistra permit. But MEPA insists that this was not an option, as in this case there wasn't "an error on the face of a record" - the same reason used to revoke controversial permits in the past.

She makes it clear that DLH would not take such a step to invoke Article 77 of the Environment and Development Planning Act unless it had taken legal advice. She mentions several valid reasons to revoke the outline permit due to several irregularities which led to the former board granting the outline permit. These include the total departure from the legal parameters established by the local plans which allows four floors and the total misapplication of the Floor Area Ratio (FAR) policy which specifically stated that no tall buildings should be built on this ridge. Moreover, no photomontages were shown to the previous board or to the public during the 2008 hearings and no proper traffic impact assessment was conducted.

"The list is long and we still feel our action was justified. When the Chairman threw the request out, we would have expected the reasons for its dismissal to be made public." 

The new draft policy on ODZ limits is being trotted out as a way of promoting rural development. Mizzi doubts that this is the case.

"We support measures promoting rural development but the policy and design guidelines for ODZ are a mere list of buildings that will be permitted in such areas." 

Moreover, the guidelines themselves are full of loopholes and have been purposely written to encourage building on unspoilt land. 

"This will result in an urban sprawl, and eventually create new towns. We only have to look at the example of the Bidnija, Zebbieh and Manikata conurbation growing out of rural hamlets to know what is to happen with the rest of our open spaces."  

She warns that at this rate, in 20 years' time there will be nothing left for our children to enjoy. 

"Retaining unbuilt areas in the countryside and on our coast is the only way of ensuring we can still enjoy fresh air that is free of traffic, and have full access to sunlight - things which are so essential to our health and which make the island attractive to our tourism industry." 

So why are politicians and some planners so keen on construction projects?

"Perhaps the planners making such policies do not take their families to the countryside, only swim in pools, and do not understand the value of protecting the landscape. Perhaps they want Malta to become another Dubai. If so, they should say that is their vision, conduct proper studies and have justifications that such a way ahead is necessary. The truth is they are swayed by those who want to make money easily and fast."

The new policy will permit new buildings right in the middle of the countryside on any landholding larger than 60 tumoli. But does it make sense to promote agritourism in Malta?

Mizzi would prefer a promotion of eco-tourism instead of agritourism.

"I would say that eco-tourism does make sense as our countryside is beautiful, our hills and ridges are stunning, and the rugged coast and our few beaches so typical of our Mediterranean identity that they should be better enjoyed. However, if to bring enjoyment to these spaces means we ruin them, then it's best that we restrain our hand."

Moreover, agritourism in Malta, whether genuine or a pure excuse to create new villas in rural areas, will inevitably require better access, therefore more roads, more infrastructure, drains and power supply. 

She also points out that although the policy is supposed to encourage the genuine farmer to increase his or her productivity providing he has a minimum of 60 tumoli of land, the policy then goes on to say that non-farming individuals can enter into partnerships with farm owners, or that owners of less than 60 tumoli can group together. 

Furthermore, each application will be considered on a 'case-by-case basis'.

"Such lax regulations are there for property developers to take advantage of. So while agritourism can benefit the genuine farmer, I question whether farming families obtaining building permits for hospitality will really host visitors, cook locally grown food and welcome the visitor into their homes as we do when staying in agritourism complexes abroad."

The new policy seems to allow various developments, ranging from wineries and stables to agritourism facilities on Level 3 buffer zones, a designation given to land in close proximity to sites of ecological and scientific importance. The policy only refers to Level 1 and Level 2 when excluding developments. Is this a cause for concern?

Mizzi points out that the Structure Plan specifically states that no residential, industrial, commercial or tourism development should be allowed in the buffer zones (Level 3) of areas protected for their ecological or scientific importance. 

"We are very concerned that the draft ODZ policy does not exclude these buffer zones in the case of new wineries and agritourism developments. It is also worrying that the draft ODZ policy does not exclude Areas of High Landscape Value for new buildings for agritourism accommodation. This is a major concern."

She warns that the impact of such developments will be even greater because of lax enforcement.

"Dumping of building excess in rural areas is rife, road tracks are passed without permits (killing all natural life below them), heights are increased illegally and then condoned."  

A case in point is that of Ta' Hagrat's Neolithic temple, now totally encased behind new private residences, "an absurd situation which belittles our sense of pride in the unique heritage we own".

MEPA is revising its policies on fireworks factories, the application of floor area ratio and the height of hotels while also revising the structure plan and local plans. Does it make sense to make so many changes all at the same time?

For Mizzi this is "sheer madness". 

"We have not even recovered from the 2006 extension of boundaries and relaxation of building heights. No study or Strategic Environment Assessment was made back in 2006 and none that we know of is being made now. The magnitude of discomfort, traffic, dust, noise that is to hit the island will surely cause great disruption for several years and give way to serious health problems." 

Moreover, excavated materials need to be placed somewhere, and our quarries are already full. 

"Just in the redevelopment of Mistra Holiday complex alone, one full truck of rubble every five minutes will congest an already congested road for two years, an impact conveniently glossed over in the findings."

The recent justification given by Transport Malta totally reversed its own previous warning about the dire situation on Xemxija's single lane road.

"To state that there was no objection to the building scheme because it could not make an already bad situation any worse is totally unacceptable."  

One argument for land reclamation, another policy advocated by the new government is that it could alleviate some of the pressure for development from the mainland.

While land reclamation can be justified for national projects - as in the case of the Freeport - it should not result in the destruction of virgin coastline, which is very scarce. 

"We need to protect its natural state, the marine biodiversity that lives in it, and our open views of the sea are so essential to keep our island identity." 

She points out that for many people driving through our built up roads, the view out to the sea is the only calming factor.  

"Yet government is promoting schemes of which as yet the public know nothing, which will gobble up more coast and spoil it for all but those who live in them." 

She laments the lack of information on government's plans on this matter.

"Again, it is easy to use beautiful spaces that look out to the sea for short term financial gain."

But how does she reply to the criticism that development is necessary to ensure economic growth?

"Some 35% of our land is built up, but it is more like 60% when you take into consideration the road networks, quarries, landfills. It is only too easy to sell off Malta's beauty spots for speculation, but the gain is only short-term."   

Instead, more attention should be diverted to regenerating and retrofitting existing urban spaces which is a far more sustainable and long-term direction, instead of taking up yet more virgin land or demolishing the old town and village cores which give us our identity. 

Mizzi does not mince her words when asked to rate the current government's environmental credentials.

"So far entirely non-existent. But then the previous administration was not exactly lily white." 

One of the political decisions she questions is that of separating the Planning from Environment within MEPA.

"This is convenient to developers as their applications will not be so closely scrutinised. A new planning authority divested of its environmental responsibilities becomes a mere rubber stamp for development." 

Moreover, she points out that until this takes place, numerous new permissive regulations are conveniently being passed that will bring widespread development everywhere, and yet there is silence from the Environment Ministry on their impact.

According to Mizzi, it remains to be seen how the Environment Ministry armed with a new Malta Advisory Council on the Environment will be carrying out this responsibility when it is one more step removed from planning. 

"I am glad to have heard [Environment Minister] Leo Brincat's statement of intent to form this Council, but I want to know more about how this Council can impact on decisions such as Mistra."

Because if the council has just one vote on the new MEPA board, "it will get nowhere, as political appointees outvote those caring to do things correctly all the time".

How does she respond to cynics who say that protesting against environmental abuse is useless because decisions are taken simply on the basis of financial considerations? 

"Those responsible, which include our planning and environment ministries and MEPA, may ride roughshod over the plea for recognition, but citizens will at least have done their utmost." 

Moreover, she believes that the outcry generated by public protests serves to create more awareness.

"Hopefully some sense of duty is instilled into the hardened hearts of those who ultimately take the decisions."

She expresses satisfaction that politicians from both sides of parliament have indicated they will attend.

"But will this translate into action from their part?" she asks.

A sense of urgency is evident in Simon Mizzi's denunciation of the state of the nation and the lop-sided priorities of those in power. 

"Malta's open spaces are so few, its Mediterranean island quality is deteriorating fast and the beauty of our islands, which is so extraordinary, needs to be protected... we owe it to our children and their children."

"This is a worrying time for Malta's environment. I urge the public to join Din l-Art Helwa and 10 other NGOs as well as the silent majority who are unable to speak up, so we can make our voices heard.

"The job of good citizens is to not keep their mouths shut."

Lil Simone Mizzi tafu meta beda jahraqha? Wara r-rizultat ta' l-elezzjoni generali. Dawn l-"ambjentalisti" mhuma xejn hlief nazzjonalisti li kull meta l-PN ighidilhom "AQBZU", jaqbzu. Paravendu tal-PN. Halluna!
To know what is happening just take a look at application PA 2253/13 consisting of a building of a huge chicken farm in pristine countryside and in an important water cachment area. We will soon loose all the remaining countryside.