Why MEPA’s new structure plan will not protect historical landscapes

Development in rural areas like Zonqor Point to be allowed if considered essential for “sustainable development” under MEPA's Strategic Plan for the Environment and Development

This view of Mdina will not be protected against development taking place elsewhere
This view of Mdina will not be protected against development taking place elsewhere
A mock-up of the proposed development in Mriehel, possibly providing a huge impact on townscapes and affecting Mdina views
A mock-up of the proposed development in Mriehel, possibly providing a huge impact on townscapes and affecting Mdina views

The new Strategic Plan for the Environment and Development (SPED), which is set to replace the Structure Plan that guides all planning decisions across Malta and Gozo, will not protect the views of historical centres like Valletta and Mdina from any development taking place elsewhere, as Din l-Art Helwa was proposing.

The proposal to include the protection of historical and natural landscapes was made by Din l-Art Helwa (DLH) when parliament’s committee for the environment and planning was discussing the new document, which will replace the 1992 Structure Plan.

The proposal was only partly taken up by government MPs who approved an amendment that states that “development within historic sites is to be carried out in such a manner as to ensure that the historic sites’ skyline is not adversely affected”.

NGOs were invited to propose amendments to the SPED document by committee chairman Marlene Farrugia. 

Only some of these amendments were included in the final draft to be discussed by the plenary in the next weeks. The PN’s committee members abstained over reservations on the entire document.

DLH proposed on 19 May that “historic skylines and buildings of importance in the landscape are to be preserved with a conservation status given to the surrounding landscape”.

The NGO proposed a clause calling for the “protection of landscapes of cultural and natural importance to ensure that vistas are not ruined.”

It also called for the classification of landscapes according to their importance to further strengthen their protection.

The amendments were aimed at protecting both rural and urban landscapes from development, particularly high-rise blocks. 

An example cited by DLH council member Joanna Spiteri Staines was the vernacular landscape surrounding the Manikata modernist chapel, which has been obliterated by insensitive development. “Malta should follow the example of other countries the Tuscan region in Italy where landscape protection orders have been approved,” she said.

Opposition planning spokesperson Ryan Callus said the tweaking of Din l-Art Helwa’s proposals was an example of the government’s lack of vision. “Din l-Art Helwa’s submission has been tweaked to such an extent of becoming completely irrelevant - from protecting the historic skyline to protecting a site’s hsitoric skyline. This is completely absurd as a skyline is never unique to one site, but to a number of sites jointly forming a skyline.”

The full list of amendments made to the SPED now pave the way for ODZ development in rural areas in those cases where no “feasible” alternative is found within the development zone.

Sustainable ODZ development?

The latest amendments proposed that “land take-up in rural areas is considered as a last resort and where it is essential for the achievement of sustainable development.”

This definition tallies with a declaration by environment Minister Leo Brincat who recently described the downscaled university development at Zonqor Point as an example of “sustainable development.” 

Brincat later went on record saying that the original proposal was not sustainable.

In comments on the final SPED draft, Din l-Art Helwa said the term ‘sustainable development’ had been turned into a very broad concept which is difficult to define. 

“It can be applied very loosely to justify development in rural areas. Who will determine what development can be considered as sustainable, and on what basis?”

DLH has expressed concern that the term ‘feasible’ is not defined. “This opens a loophole to enable the development of large commercial projects in rural areas,” it said.

‘Feasibility’ is already being suggested as a justification for the building on 90,000 square metres of land at Zonqor, by implying that the project will not be feasible elsewhere.

The SPED still recommends a “sequential approach”, through which the government should first re-use or re-develop existing properties and only then proceed to use vacant land.

One significant amendment is that any revision of building zone boundaries “must not constitute a significant change” over the 2006 extension, even though the revision can include additions and exclusions of the 2006 boundaries.

Back in December 2014, parliamentary secretary for planning Michael Falzon told MaltaToday that the new local plans will add new zones “unfairly” left out in the controversial 2006 rationalisation, but excluded a major extension of building zones.

Din l-Art Helwa had proposed that there should be no change in development zones.

The document now also directly refers to facilitating the development of “bunkering facilities for liquefied natural gas”, crucial to the government’s project for a new natural gas plant at Delimara.

The SPED document also includes objectives first set out in 2012 by the Nationalist administration, but these remain generic in form rather than concrete policies as with the Structure Plan.

The only concrete proposals enshrined in actual SPED policy are Labour’s pet projects for a Gozo airstrip, a cruise liner terminal in Gozo, land reclamation and tourism development in Comino.

“It’s an excellent example of plagiarism,” says Ryan Callus. “Labour turned a document intended to serve as a guideline, into what should be a fully fledged SPED, devoid of any policies and lacking studies which are crucial to any planner in determining a vision for the next ten years as dictated by the Environment and Development Act.”