I will take (tough) decisions | Michael Falzon

Michael Falzon promises that he will not shrink from taking tough decisions on development boundaries, land reclamation and illegal development, but will he increase Malta’s environmental deficit?

Michael Falzon: We cannot increase the size of the country in any significant way, not even through land reclamation
Michael Falzon: We cannot increase the size of the country in any significant way, not even through land reclamation

Parliamentary Secretary Michael Falzon’s office is adorned with cartoons depicting him in various postures, which appeared in different newspapers, including some of the most irreverent once published in MaltaToday, which occupy the most prominent place behind his desk.

“I do not mind being criticised,” says Falzon as we sit down for an interview in his office in Castille. 

Falzon also makes it clear that his style of politics is that of avoiding personal attacks, while accepting that being in the public spotlight exposes him to criticism and even mockery.

His mission statement is simple. On government land he wants “government to get what is due to it”. 

On planning, his goal is to implement the electoral promise to separate planning from the environment and to enact “courageous” policies, promising that he will not be afraid of taking decisions which will not be to everyone’s liking.

One such decision will be whether to tweak development zones once again as the Malta Environment and Planning Authority (MEPA) starts drafting the new local plans over the next years.

Falzon makes it clear that this is a case where the government has to take decisions.  “When you are elected to government, one is not expected to sit back, but to take decisions. One has to consult with everyone but after that, one has to decide. Consultation does not mean never taking a decision.”

Will the new local plans pave the way for more ODZ development?

“The general political direction is that the new local plans will not double or triple the size of the development zone…We are saying clearly that as far as possible the development zone will not increase.”

But why not simply keep the development zone the same as it is today?

“When the previous government extended development zones in 2006 there were great abuses. Great creativity was used in extending boundaries in certain areas while leaving out plots of land, even if surrounding lands were included in the development zone. Our clear direction is to ensure that development zones are not increased as far as possible but even from an aesthetic point of view it would make sense to include lands which were left out unfairly.”

But Falzon insists that “there is no intention to repeat the obscenities of 2006.”

One issue, which is bound to create controversy, is land reclamation.

Last year, the government received 21 proposals for land reclamation projects, after it issued a call for expressions of interest that closed in December.

Falzon’s predecessor, Michael Farrugia, had announced an exhibition of the project proposals, which was due to be held in January, but this never materialised.

“There is nothing wrong in being cautious,” says Falzon who insists that land reclamation is still on the government’s cards.

Falzon makes it clear that the government will not go for 21 land reclamation projects.

“We have to consider many factors, including the level of investment needed and the environmental considerations.”

So far the government has analyzed all these applications.

“At this stage we have a clear idea on where we can start and it is clearly not our intention to go for 21 projects at one go.”

When asked for a timeframe he hints that studies on some of these projects would start some time next year.

Will it be just another real estate project?

“We are not exclusively looking at real estate projects.”

But Falzon also points out that real estate remains “economically crucial” for Malta and that some investors would be looking at recovering their investment through some real estate.

“But we will be vigilant to ensure that land reclamation will not consist of standalone real estate projects… we have to look for new niches of tourism and development.”

But in the end he will take a decision which will “strike a balance”.

“It is the nature of my portfolio to make choices and I won’t refrain from making them,” he adds.

He recognises that pressures on the government to allocate land for development are huge.

“With the demands we have on public land, I can ensure that even if we have a country as large as Australia, in 20 years we would have dispensed it all… We have to acknowledge our limits and that we cannot increase the size of the country in any significant way, not even through land reclamation.”

Is the seabed opposite the Bahar ic-Caghaq coastline being considered for land reclamation?

What Falzon rejects outrightly is “having three or four land reclamation projects” at Bahar ic-Caghaq.

“We are not talking about Bahar ic-Caghaq only… Although Bahar ic-Caghaq is not being excluded there will be no concentration of land reclamation projects in this area.”

He also insists that no final decision has been taken, that all proposals are being considered and that “no particular area is being privileged over the rest.”

What can surely be excluded are the Gozitan coastline and the entire coast between Cirkewwa and the Freeport (on the Paradise Bay to Zurrieq side) as this would be “physically impossible”.

An area near between Marsaskala and Xghajra was seen as the most feasible option in a report prepared under the previous government. But Falzon doubts whether this is possible, due to the depth of the sea in this area.

A consultation document entitled  “For an efficient planning system” proposed removing the blanket ban on the regularisation of development outside development zones (ODZ) and scheduled areas, such as areas of ecological and scientific importance.

Article 70 of the Environment and Development Planning Act enacted by the previous government in December 2010, prohibited the MEPA from regularising any illegal developments built in ODZ, or scheduled areas.

According to the consultation document, the deletion of the sixth schedule will be replaced by the imposition of daily fines: ostensibly, this would mean that daily fines start falling due from the day somebody applies to regularise their illegal development, to the date that MEPA issues permission.

Falzon points out that the prohibition of sanctioning has not led to any improvement.

“What is the use of prohibiting MEPA from sanctioning illegalities when these illegalities simply remain in place…this is like crying wolf saying that we can’t ever regularise these buildings while effectively leaving everything as it is, with society gaining nothing in return?” he asks.

Instead Falzon prefers to impose daily fines.

But what is the use of imposing daily fines when certain illegal establishments like restaurants in scheduled sites simply finance this additional cost from the additional table covers on illegally occupied land.

“We will ensure that the daily fines will be worked out in a way that this calculation will no longer be possible.”

Falzon contends that the Sixth Schedule has not been a serious enough deterrent against illegal development, and higher fines may be even more effective.

Can’t one do both; raise fines and keep the ban on regularising illegal developments in protected areas?

Falzon acknowledges that this may well be the case, making it clear that a decision has yet to be taken as the document is still being discussed. But he hints that the choice ultimately “is between demolishing all illegal buildings without society gaining anything in return, or imposing exorbitant fines which would serve as an effective deterrent for the future while allowing the possibility of sanctioning in some cases”.

But he also makes it clear that allowing MEPA to sanction illegal developments in ODZ areas does not necessarily mean that all such development will be regularised.

MEPA has recently approved a new policy regulating development in ODZ areas.

The document proposes a myriad of new small-scale developments in the countryside, ranging from stables and retail shops, to visitor centres, while allowing new developments for agro tourism on 60 tumoli sites. 

I express my doubts on MEPA’s ability to ensure that these agricultural developments do not serve as a smokescreen for more residential development. In fact one of the problems in the past was that structures approved as stables ended up being used as dwellings. 

Considering MEPA’s poor track record on enforcement, is the new policy a recipe for abuse?

Falzon immediately points out that one effective deterrent against abuse, in the case of stables, is that part of any new stable will have to be built in timber.

Moreover the policy also contains various clauses, which require applicants for developments like ODZ wineries or agro tourism, to enter into legally binding agreements, which forbid them from changing the use of these structures.

“We cannot use the lack of enforcement as an excuse for doing nothing. What we have to do is strengthen the enforcement structures.”

MEPA has also approved a policy on fireworks factories complexes, which sets parameters for the development of new ODZ factories and for the extension of older ones. A draft of this policy was prepared by a committee chaired by Michael Falzon –who previously was a legal advisor to the Malta Pyrotechnics Association.

Falzon, who rejects any insinuation that he had a conflict of interest, immediately makes it clear that when he chaired this committee he had no clue that he would end up being appointed parliamentary secretary responsible for planning. He recalls jokingly, telling the MEPA board “thank you… I hope I will never have to come here again” upon presenting the policy on March 27, only to receive a phone call from the Prime Minister the following Saturday that he was going to appoint him as the new PS responsible for MEPA.

In his submissions on the new policy, chemist Prof. Alfred Vella welcomed the fact that MEPA intended allowing new fireworks factories as he had recommended in 2010 to improve safety, but the same expert insisted that the new policy would be counter productive if not accompanied by quotas for the use of potassium perchlorate. Falzon points out that in June the government had already introduced legislation to further limit the use of potassium chlorate and describes the use of perchlorate as a safer alternative to the use of far more dangerous chemicals.

“In no other country is the use of perchlorate restricted. Moreover in Malta we even exclude totally the use of ammonium perchlorate, which is legal in most if not all of Europe. The choice is between encouraging the use of safe chemicals like perchlorate and more dangerous substances.”

According to Falzon studies on the dangers posed by perchlorates are “based mainly on the vast amounts which are burned when space vehicles are launched.”

When asked how the government plans to tackle the issue of the illegal beach rooms at Armier, Falzon could only exclude one option, that of  “waking up one morning and driving a bulldozer to demolish everything.”

He recalls how in 1992 the PN administration tried and failed in its attempt to use force to resolve this issue. Subsequently no further attempt was made to find a solution for the issue.

“This is a complex issue and there is no easy solution. We have to find a solution, which has eluded everyone else. What is sure is that before March 2013 nothing was done to find a solution for this problem.”

Another controversial policy is that regulating the development of ODZ petrol stations.

The parliamentary secretary defends the need for a policy regulating petrol stations in these areas.

“When it comes to relocation of petrol stations we have to keep in mind that some of these petrol stations are presently located next to hotels packed with students who come to Malta to study English, and petrol stations next to eight-storey flats.”

The Malta Environment and Planning Authority board’s proposal to introduce a 3,000 square metre capping for ODZ petrol stations was not included in a draft policy presented to parliament’s standing committee on development and planning. Why didn’t the government accept the MEPA board’s proposals in the draft presented to parliament?

Falzon insists that this issue is still up for discussion but he hints that there are already enough safeguards in the draft policy to minimise the environmental impact and respect the rural context, like the prohibition of such development next to public water extraction zones and on Grade 1 and Grade 2 sites or ecological sites.

But Falzon would not commit himself on implementing the 3,000 square metre limit proposed by the MEPA board.

He confirms that as things stand now the policy does not include the 3,000 square metre limit proposed by MEPA.

“If necessary we are still in a position to change the draft but even as things stand the policy will not result in a sprawl of development in the countryside.”

Recently MEPA presented proposals for new design policy guidelines aimed at avoiding the creation of apartments, which are too small for those living in them.

But the new policy also allows an increase in building heights in corner sites. It also permits additional storeys over and above the existing height limitation when a building is fronted on both sides by already existing buildings, which are themselves higher than the existing height limitation.  Is this another balancing act between pro development policies and protecting neighbourhoods from overdevelopment?

Falzon insists that the new guidelines are “innovative” and “courageous”.

“Everyone used to talk of doll-sized residential apartments, now we are doing something concrete to prevent their construction. Nobody did anything on this before.”

Rather than favouring over-development, the policy also sets clear parameters against the development in backyard gardens of old buildings. 

“I can assure you that this policy did not make me popular with developers.”

The new policy also sets the maximum height in metres, setting it out as a number of storeys and a penthouse.

“For the first time development in all urban conservation areas will be treated in the same way as development in Mdina and Valletta…the skyline and context will always be respected and no one will have an automatic right for three storeys plus penthouse, for example.”

But Falzon justifies allowing more storeys on blocks already surrounded by others exceeding the height limitations.

“If you already have blank walls, would it not be better from an aesthetic point of view to create a uniform building level?”

In June Falzon presented to parliament a petition with 104,293 signatures calling for minority rights to be safeguarded from referenda seeking to impose the views of the majority.

The petition had been presented to him by the Federation for Hunters, Trappers and Conservationists, the FKNK.

Falzon claims that he was simply doing his “duty”.

“They asked me to present a petition signed by a third of the electorate on their behalf…. It would have been rude and arrogant to ignore these people.”

But Falzon makes it clear that since then he has kept himself “completely out of the scene.”  Neither will he do any political follow-up on the petition.

“I am not responsible for hunting and trapping and I will not interfere in parliamentary procedures.”

He even says that if faced with a petition organised by BirdLife against illegal hunting, he would have no difficulty presenting it.

But doesn’t the fact that he had presented the petition mean that he agreed with its central demand; i.e. to curtail referenda which impact on minorities like hunters?

“We have to decide whether we live in a democracy or not. This means defending the rights of everyone, including minorities to present petitions to parliament.”

But Falzon makes it clear that he would respect the outcome of the referendum on spring hunting.

“When I led the party’s electoral process I have always respected the will of the electorate. Whatever the result I will respect the will of the people…”

Did you agree with the Prime Minister’s decision to suspend the autumn season following a spate of illegalities?

“It was a government decision and I am part of this government. Therefore I respect this collective decision.”