Stop treating planning like plasticine, says developers lobby’s new director

Planning’s unlikely defence comes from a former Nationalist MP who sat on the Planning Authority board, was environment spokesperson for the Opposition, and then turned lobbyist for Malta’s maligned developers’ lobby

Marthese Portelli
Marthese Portelli

Local plans are being rendered “irrelevant” by piecemeal changes to development briefs and this is contributing to residential areas losing their character, the developers’ association believes.

The latest defence for clear planning rules comes from Marthese Portelli, director general for the Malta Developers Association, who told MaltaToday the ad hoc approach to planning is causing uncertainty.

Portelli spoke in the wake of a critical press statement released by the MDA recently over changes to at least three development briefs proposed by the Planning Authority.

Over the past few weeks the PA unveiled proposals for changes to planning briefs for the Ħal Ferħ complex in Għajn Tuffieħa, the Jerma hotel site in Marsaskala and the Marsa sports grounds.

The Ħal Ferħ proposal is to include residential buildings alongside tourism amenities, likewise, the Jerma brief includes a residential component and a 10-storey building despite Marsaskala not being designated a high-rise zone, and the Marsa sports grounds includes an adjacent site where height limitation will be increased by two floors. 

Portelli said this piecemeal approach to planning was not in the interest of the common good.

“The MDA is in favour of proper and good planning… development briefs that increase height or increase density will automatically impinge on the character of the neighbourhood and put more stress on the infrastructure and the environment,” she said.

She pointed to localities and areas where confused planning has eroded the character of the place, such as the exclusive Santa Maria Estate in Mellieħa and the Marsaskala coastline.

Portelli noted how Santa Maria Estate was designated for bungalows but has ended up with multiple blocks of flats sprouting among the low-lying buildings.

Likewise, the Marsaskala coast area is designated as a residential priority zone, and a bungalow area, but the partial review being proposed for Jerma will change the character completely, she added.

“We have a hotch-potch of bungalows, villas and blocks of flats mixed with one another, facade colour schemes and designs which sorely jar with one another, incongruent facade apertures, and the list goes on… We have to stop treating planning like plasticine,” Portelli insisted.

These piecemeal approaches only trigger the loss of the country’s character and contribute to the depreciation of what once were prestigious residential areas, she said.

Portelli shrugged off the general perception that developers would rather do without planning strictures, insisting that if developers work in an environment without any rules, their commercial lifespan will be short.

“We want development in our country to be sustainable, greener, cleaner with a product that is more pleasant to the eye. The MDA has been repeatedly insisting that planning needs to be done holistically, comprehensively and with a long-term vision because this would guarantee certainty and a level playing field for everyone,” she said.

Portelli said piecemeal changes, partial reviews and twisting policy interpretation only serve to create an uneven playing field.

But she was coy when asked whether the MDA agrees with the practice of allowing residential development on sites originally identified for tourism purposes.

“The spirit of the original brief should always be kept but given the impact the COVID-19 pandemic is having on the country and on the world, one may need to revisit certain elements, especially in view of the direct impact the pandemic has had and will continue to have on the tourism industry and the property market. But this should not be used as an excuse to increase the Gross Floor Area whether through a lateral expansion or a vertical height increase,” she replied.

Portelli insisted that partial planning reviews must be substituted with a holistic planning policy that provides certainty.

“The piecemeal approach may accommodate a few developers in the short term, certain architects and the political decision maker but the MDA will continue to advocate against the benefit of the few and in favour of all investors and the common good,” she said.

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