PN MP urges government to ‘end uncertainty’ and publish revised local plans

Environment minister Jose Herrera, AD spokesperson Mario Mallia clash over perceived strength of new Environment and Resources Authority

Shadow environment minister Marthese Portelli
Shadow environment minister Marthese Portelli

Shadow environment minister Marthese Portelli called on the government to publish its revised local plans, warning that its delay in doing so is creating “uncertainty” amongst developers and environmental NGOs alike.

Shortly after the general election, the Labour government had announced a revision process of the local plans – the guidelines that determine building rooms in Maltese towns that were last updated in 2006.

The Malta Environment and Planning Authority had originally pledged to finalise the process by June 2015, but confirmed last February that it has “no fixed date set for completion” of the new local plans.

“The problem doesn’t lie with developers proposing high-rise buildings, but with government not drafting its policies,” Portelli said on Monday night’s edition of Reporter that debated environmental issues. “Local plans give developers clear legal directions on what they can and cannot build, but at this point in time there are two classes of developers – those who are proposing projects based on the current local plans, and those proposing projects on the basis of potential future plans.”

She warned that the latter group of developers could “condition” government to revise the local plans according to their proposals.

She also claimed that high-rise contradicts the new strategic plan for the environment and development (SPED), which states that “while tall buildings may increase efficacy of land use and create open spaces, their impact on the Maltese landscape is becoming a matter of concern”.

“The SPED itself raises doubts about high-rise but then the government’s floor to area ratio policy permits it,” she said.

However, Portelli disagreed with Democratic Party MP Marlene Farrugia’s call for a moratorium on large-scale projects made in light of seven proposed skyscrapers in and around Paceville, arguing that construction cannot be halted without even a set date for the new local plans.

On his part, environment minister Jose Herrera said that the revised local plans shouldn’t be rushed and that they will be an improvement from those approved by former resources minister George Pullicino in 2006, and will not include an extension of the development zones.

He agreed with a strategic plan in light of the high-rise proposals and admitted that the government is often viewed negatively on environmental issues. However, he added that the same was true for previous PN administrations and pledged to prioritise the environment, starting with decisions on alternatives for engineered landfills.

“People are concerned about the take-up of land, but let’s not be alarmist,” he told host Saviour Balzan. “While Malta is relatively densely built-up, 70% of the land is still unbuilt and 13.5% of that has been designated as Natura 2000 sites. Also the government has pledged not to develop more land outside development zones.”

He also noted that air pollutants have gone down by a third since the Marsa power station was switched off, and claimed that more people are now choosing to use public transport.

‘Environment sacrificed at the altar of money’

Alternattiva Demokratika spokesperson Mario Mallia had harsh words for the large political parties, accusing them of “sacrificing environmental sensitivity at the altar of money”.

“Political parties have been in the pockets of strong [development] lobbies who have in turn financed them, but at least a law has now been passed to regulate the financing of parties” he said.

He called for a strategic plan on high-rise, warning that as it stands “any Tom, Dick and Harry” can propose to build skyscrapers.

“The problem is that everyone keeps coming up with proposals, but there’s no clear strategic plan on what is and isn’t acceptable,” he said.

Mallia insisted that the construction industry can continue growing without taking up more virgin land, calling for it to shift its focus towards regenerating urban areas.

He lashed out at the recent MEPA demerger into separate planning and environment authorities, noting that all the members of the Planning Authority’s executive committee have been appointed by government.

“There isn’t enough overlap between the PA and the Environment and Resources Authority [ERA]; placing an ERA member on the Planning Board is merely tokenism. MEPA’s environment unit used to have a seat on the old MEPA board, but the problem was that its voice was continuously ignored.”

However, Herrera retorted that splitting up MEPA was a pro-environmental move and expressed his bemusement at the green party’s opposition to it.

“The ERA is an entire authority and has the power to appeal permits granted by the PA,” he said, urging Mallia to change his opinion over the demerger as “there is nothing wrong with changing one’s opinion in politics”.

“The government is often criticised as being too close to developers, but the creation of such a powerful authority is a clear sign of our pro-environmental policies.”