Ombudsman asked to investigate restriction on information on planning website

A new environmental organisation has described the Planning Authority's decision to restrict information as 'a game of hide and seek' to make it more difficult for the public to scrutinise planning applications

Plans for the American University of Malta campus at Zonqor Point have vanished from the Planning Authority website as a result of a new policy to publish only documents for complete applications
Plans for the American University of Malta campus at Zonqor Point have vanished from the Planning Authority website as a result of a new policy to publish only documents for complete applications

The Ombudsman has been asked to investigate new restrictions on public information on the Planning Authority’s web site.

The call was made by a new environmental NGO, Futur Ambjent Wieħed. The group asked the Commissioner for Environment and Planning to investigate the PA’s new policy that restricts public access to documents related to applications which had been publicly available only until a few days ago.

The story was reported by MaltaToday last Sunday.

Searching for documents related to applications like the controversial American University of Malta campus at Zonqor, or the 40-storey high-rise proposed in Sliema, will greet users with a surprise: they have all disappeared from the PA’s public information system, with a notice that the applications in question are “incomplete”.

“As a regular user of the Planning Authority site, I have encountered the same difficulties, as have many members of our NGO,” lawyer Claire Bonello said in her letter to the Ombudsman.

According to Bonello this restriction of access to information and documentation at the PA's arbitrary whim places the public at a disadvantage.

“What reason can there possibly be of hindering access to an application which has already been published and has been published for consultation?” Bonello asked.

One case in point noted by Bonello is that relating to the 40-storey high-rise proposed on the barracks at Fort Cambridge.

An EIA on the proposed development has already been issued and subjected to consultation.

“So why has the PA whisked the pertinent documentation from view?” she asked.

The restriction of information has been described by the NGO as “an evident breach of the Aarhus Convention” which provides for public access to information. 

“The PA's lack of transparency smacks of its evident contempt for those stakeholders who are not developers or applicants,” Bonello said.

She insisted there was no legal justification for the PA’s “hide-and-seek game”, which was only making it more difficult for the public to scrutinise the planning process. The PA has cited ‘legal reasons’ to justify these changes through which documents related to these documents will only be made available to the public when an “application form is fully filled, all documentation required has been fully submitted and payment for the same has been fully effected”.

The PA spokesperson explained that it is only at this point, that the authority “is legally bound” to make public the application by publishing them on the Department of Information website, the Government Gazette and by affixing a site notice on site.

“This is the stage when an application should be made available to the general public, including on eApps for public viewing.”

Applications which have gone missing from the new system include that related to the construction of a new wing for the Excelsior Hotel in Floriana presented last year; the proposed 22-storey high-rise next to Mercury House; a proposed 12-storey development in Xghajra; the 13-storey high-rise proposed by developer Joseph Portelli in Qormi; and the proposed road passing through the Mgarr harbour woodland in Gozo submitted last month.

A number of Planning Control applications have also gone missing.

These include a zoning application presented by business group Fino for residential and commercial development on the site of Pembroke’s Australia Hall, which was presented last year, and the more recent application related to the Westin Dragonara Hotel’s expansion near the St Julian’s coastline.

Curiously, while information related to these major projects is no longer available, documents related to a number of minor applications which are still at “vetting and plotting stage” can still be viewed.

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