Photo: Chris Sant Fournier for Times of Malta.

Graffiti’s action outside the Planning Authority offices today is entirely justified. It also comes in the style of veteran activists who are wise enough to eat an elephant one bite at a time. They are focusing on petrol stations and the fact that year after year the government postpones having a “policy” on petrol station permits whilst giving ad hoc permits to applicants who are building entire complexes outside development zones.

By the time this “policy” materialises, anyone who ever wanted to build a petrol station will have done so.

This is not just happening with petrol stations of course.

When they were elected in 2013, Labour instructed town planners to overhaul Local Plans which were clearly due for a shake-up. The job was done by 2015 but the whole exercise was shelved.

Instead, a broad, high-level document replaced the detailed principles of the Structure Plan and adopted as a catch-all policy that is so hopelessly vague it can accommodate all sorts of atrocities without apparently being breached. In the meantime, the Local Plans were allowed to shrivel to irrelevancy.

Instead of local plans, the government now bullies planners into conducting “partial reviews” to the Local Plans on the back of the excuse that circumstances have changed since the Local Plans came online. Of course, they have. Most of them are thirteen years old. Some are from 17 years ago. One is from 24 years ago. It was an entirely different country then.

“Partial reviews” are in theory objective improvements and updates to the Local Plans but in practice, they are ad hominem adjustments intended to accommodate individual developers. The developer looks at the Local Plans and finds their plans are in conflict with the Plan. So they go to the Minister who brokers on their behalf a change to the Plan in a “partial review”.

When that’s done they apply for a permit under the revised terms of the Local Plan.

This is how the sack of Malta is underway.

I use that term ‘sack of Malta’ advisedly because it replicates the model of the sack of Palermo in the 1950s and 1960s. The elegant Baroque city, surrounded by citrus groves and a picture-perfect landscape was transformed into the haphazard concrete jungle that gives Sicilians a sickening melancholy to this day.

It was organised by names you’ve heard of because eventually they died in disgrace or gunned down in the street when things got sour. But Giovanni Gioia, Salvo Lima and Vito Ciancimino organised the three-way arrangement between town planners, the mafia and the Democrazia Cristiana to facilitate a “building boom,” the corrupt consolidation in concrete of the cash reserves accumulated by crime and corruption.

The draft town plan for Palermo, full of hifalutin principles of conservation and careful planning was published in 1954. It was dragged through drudges of public consultation, hundreds of amendments in response to private applications from citizens, and adjustments to accommodate the claims made by local DC politicians on behalf of constituents, most of them mafiosi. 

Multiple versions were published in 1956 and 1959, all the, while public building contracts, bridge and road building and permits for concrete edifices (“palazzi” as they flatteringly but misleadingly call them in Italian) were issued until a final, binding version of the town plan, was published as approved law in 1962.

In the meantime, ad hoc permits for demolition of elegant buildings from the late 19th and early 20th century were rushed through the town council often days before the buildings 50th birthday when they would have been automatically scheduled for conservation.

But by then the disaster had been completed and the conspiracy was conducted by design. Shares of public expenses and the returns from the development activities found their way back into the pockets of the politicians who facilitated them and the political party which they organised like a freemasonry lodge.

In the process, they brought out into the open cash generated by the mafia in the rapid criminal boom after the hardship of the years of Fascism and war.

Of course, the real victims of this conspiracy are the generations of Palermitani and Sicilians that inherited one of the finest cities of the Mediterranean, ruined by random, haphazard “development,” as great a misnomer as “palazzo”.

Thing is what we’re obviously seeing happening here in front of our very eyes.

Someone in 2015 realised that replicating the PN model of having an independent authority decide on the back of detailed and public Local Plans would not only transfer to Labour the political cost of unpopular refusals. It would also squander the opportunity for corruption and collusion.

In effect, allowing the Local Plans to expire in practice but not in law, has returned effective executive authority and political power in the granting of building permits to the Minister and the Labour Party. The planning process at the PA is just a formality because the conditions that allow or disallow a development to be permitted are entirely organised behind closed doors before the application is even filed.

People who are excluded from the criminal and corrupt nexus that benefits the Labour Party and its senior operators are blocked by rules cast in concrete in Local Plans that regulate a country that no longer exists in practice.

On the other hand people with access to the Limas and the Cianciminos of our time arrange for a “partial review” of the Local Plan that accommodates their development intentions before they even declare them giving them a timing advantage over everyone else.

This is how a mafia cartel is created. People who have no access to the mafiosi in power, only have the published Local Plans to rely on to determine what it is they might be allowed to develop. They cannot know what would become permissible once others with the right access ‘arrange’ for a “partial review”. Before they know what’s happened, they read that a permit has been granted to someone that would not have been possible if the rules of the published Local Plan had not been “partially reviewed”.

The full effect of the mafia arrangement is then felt when people without access realise they have a stark choice: between arranging with their former competitors to rope them in as partners in exchange for a share of the politicians in their pockets or quit the business altogether.

In the process, they also know that the last thing they should do is complain about any perceived or real unfairness of this reality. You don’t need Corleonese guns and car bombs to enforce omerta’. All you really need is to force a binary choice between inclusion and exclusion, between joining them and paying for the privilege and sharing the profits at the end or. There’s no or, really. There just is no choice.

Crudely this is the model of the Lorry Sant days. The power to decide on development permits rested fully in his office and was exercised by capodecines to whom you needed to bay protection money or pay out as silent partners.

These latter-day Lorry Sants were sharper suits and have sharper minds. They have now incorporated the legal models developed by PN administrations at the time to remove Ministerial authority from planning decisions, transforming them into convenient and legitimising fronts for a far more effective and far more lucrative arrangement between mafia, politics and business.

It’s not just with petrol stations. The sack of Malta is well and truly underway.