The PA after Johann Buttigieg

Johann Buttigieg presided over a building boom propped by planning policies devised in the first two years of the Labour administration. Does his departure represent a turn around to greater environmental sensitivity? Asks James Debono

Johann Buttigieg
Johann Buttigieg

On the same day that Buttigieg announced his departure, the PA announced a call for public consultation on how to change the rural policy approved in 2014, through which countryside ruins could be changed in to villas and small countryside retreats could be disguised as stores or stables.

This was just one of a number of policies approved under Buttigieg’s tunure, in a policy blitz in the first two years of Labour’s administration before the Environment and Resources Authority was even born and at a time when its predecessor; the Environment Protection Directorate was left headless.  

Other policies included the one regulating the approval of petrol stations in the ODZ which is also being revamped, the policies allowing extra heights for hotels, the policy regulating high rises and crucially the development guidelines which include a menu of policies which propped the building boom in urban areas.

What never came to fruition was the formulation of new local plans and new development boundaries, a public consultation on which was commenced in 2013 but which were thrown on the backburner after the Zonqor controversy.

Outlasting three Parliamentary secretaries

Buttigieg outlasted three parliamentary secretaries responsible for planning, namely Micheal Farrugia, Michael Falzon and Deborah Schembri but seemed less in synch with super Minister Ian Borg who is responsible for both planning and transport but who has taken the planning part of his portfolio more seriously, obscuring parliamentary secretary Chris Agius.

Moreover over the past months there were growing signs of division between the PA’s decision making boards and the Planning Directorate over which Buttigieg holds sway - which culminated in a clash with Planning Commission chairman Elizabeth Ellul, over an application pushed by construction magnate Joseph Portelli to redevelop a countryside ruin in Qala.

A key peg and a punching bag

Still despite signs of unease in more recent times, during his tenure Buttigieg was a  key peg in the relationship between the state and major development projects.

Johann Buttigieg incarnated the Labour government’s pro business ethos, believing that “as long as foreign investment keeps coming into the country” the construction industry will remain “sustainable”.

In an interview published in 2017 he warned that the moment we start issuing less permits “we would see rental rates and prices go higher due to foreigners competing with the locals.”

Buttigieg also took in his stride criticism over the selection process for the American University Campus and other controversial decisions like that of hiring a private jet to bring a government appointee to vote on the controversial DB Project.  

He willingly served as a punching bag for decisions which may well have been taken elsewhere.

Despite being constantly targeted in the media Buttigieg maintained the composure of a well paid but humble civil servant who was not averse to scrutiny.  

Under his tenure the PA answered all question by MaltaToday, albeit not always in a satisfactory way.  

I recall grilling him on the site selection process for the Zonqor campus.  I was struck by his ability to take the flak for others.  

Moreover having directly experienced the modus operandi of previous administration in his role as case officer in major projects even earning the rebuke of former PA auditor Joe Falzon, he also showed signs at frustration at being singled out for sins which were always part of the norm.

Much remains to be seen whether the change over will impact on relationships between the PA and big businesses behind major projects, often formulated after years of back room negotiations.  

It may also be the case that the souring of some of these relationships also had a bearing on Buttigieg’s resignation.

Still over the past months the government has shown signs of wavering as pressure from local communities started mounting even within the ranks of the Labour party itself, with Labour led councils uniting against Silvio Debono’s DB project in Pembroke and Cottonera residents rebelling against the AUM project.

The Planning Directorate’s recommendation to approve the  AUM project contrasted with the mood of the Planning Board which in the last meeting indicated its intention not to approve it.

A new balancing act

The appointment of a new Executive Chairman at the PA may well be seen as a rebalancing act just as Austin Walker’s appointment represented Lawrence Gonzi’s ‘conversion’ to more environmentally cautious policies, after himself opening the development floodgates before 2008 when the PA was run Andrew Calleja.  

While initially Walker was perceived as a highly paid political appointee, as time passed he started showing signs of independence and personal judgement, which in some cases further soured the PN’s relationship with certain businessmen like the Gaffarenas.  

In this sense much depends on who will replace Buttigieg.

Will he be replaced by another politically loyal public servant or by someone with a mind of his own?

Or was Buttigieg ultimately side-lined because he had grown too much for this strategic role?  

Yet there may be another reason for the present government’s caution on the planning front.  

For the impression of a “free for all” is eroding trust in the Planning Authority at a crucial juncture when the government has to push forward controversial decisions with regards to infrastructural works like the new Paceville network and the Gozo tunnel while finding a solution for the construction waste problem possibly through land reclamation.  

In such a scenario the government may well opt to balance the negative environmental impact and outrage generated by decisions with a greater control on the planning process.  Yet this may come at a political cost.  

For what ultimately undermined the Gonzi administration’s planning reforms was the impression that some animals were more equal than others.  

So far Labour has successfully countered such an impression by lowering the bar for everyone, thus ensuring a wider circle of beneficiaries.  

Introducing more stringent planning rules, while being the right thing to do may be politically dangerous, as any sign of favouritism would fuel perceptions of a clique.  

The only way out would be to introduce a firewall between the Planning Authority and the government of the day, in a way that responsibility over decisions falls squarely on planning officials.  

But this may be easier said than done.

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