Sent in by urban planner Dr John Ebejer.  For many years Dr Ebejer held various positions relating to planning and development at the Planning Authority, the Building Industry Consultative Council and relevant ministries. 

Recently the Prime Minister called on developers to show less ‘greed’.  This was his reaction to the strong criticism for the many developments that are being permitted which are harmful to the environment, severely detrimental to residents and/or significantly visually intrusive.

Such a statement is surprising coming from a minister, more so from the prime minister.  It says a lot about the dismal situation that planning and the environment are in.   It is the responsibility of government to oversee the work of the regulator, in this case the Planning Authority.  The government is politically responsible to ensure that the regulator is able to carry out its tasks in the best public interest and in line with its legal objectives.  The legislation specifies that:

“It shall be the duty of the Government to enhance the quality of life for the benefit of the present and future generations ….. through a comprehensive sustainable land use planning system, and… to preserve, use and develop land and sea for this and future generations, whilst having full regard to environmental, social and economic needs…”

The PM’s statement is an attempt to shift responsibility for the current situation on others and in so doing implying that the government is not at fault.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Politicians are elected to govern and to work for the public interest.  That includes overseeing the work of government agencies and regulators.  They are ultimately responsible when things go wrong.  PM Muscat’s attempt to shift the blame on others is in fact an admission of the failure of his own government.

More than that, shifting blame means that the government has no intention of doing anything about it.  A serious prime minister would have held a press conference, together with the minister responsible, explaining in general terms some of the changes he would like to bring about to improve the situation.  That did not happen nor will it ever happen under a prime minister who seems to care very little on the degradation of people’s lives, largely because of overdevelopment.

To operate effectively a regulator requires sensible laws and adequate resources.  For the government to rely on the goodwill of those being regulated is simply not on.  It creates an un-level playing field in which developers who are not ‘greedy’ would be greatly disadvantaged.  Because no matter how much the prime minister appeals, there will always be some developers who would be hell-bent on maximising their profits to the full, irrespective of the consequences.

Most of all, Muscat’s call for less greed from developers is weird because it was his government that has promoted and encouraged greed.

Until 2015 the Structure Plan was the national strategic document for urban planning in Malta and Gozo.  In spite its imperfections, it provided a holistic view of spatial planning and generally had a positive impact on development in Malta.   The introduction of the SPED was widely criticised as a retrograde step by environmental NGOs and the general public, yet the government went ahead and replaced the Structure Plan with this unsatisfactory document. Unlike the Structure Plan, the final SPED document does not include detailed policies to guide planning decisions, and only provides high-level thematic objectives, with little practical and positive relevance to decision making in the planning sphere.

We have a planning system gone mad.  On selected applications the Planning Authority stretches policy interpretation to the limit.  Where this does not go far enough to satisfy developers’ ‘greed’, the policy is changed in a way which is irrational and which is diametrically opposite to the public interest.

For example in 2014, the Rural Policy was amended to allow dilapidated rooms in the countryside to be redeveloped as villas (supposedly subject to the room being once used as a residence).  From a planning/ public interest point of view, there was absolutely no justification for this change. The revised rural policy is causing creeping urbanisation in the countryside.   No doubt, government’s intention was to fuel more and more ‘greed’.

Also in 2014, the Hotel Height Relaxation policy came into force.  Allowing additional floors for hotels was supposedly intended to facilitate hotel improvements and thus improve the tourism product.  In reality the policy was abusively used to increase the number of apartments within mixed developments.  Still more developer’s ‘greed’ actively encouraged by the government.

In 2016, the planning legislation was amended to remove the autonomy of the Planning Authority.  The legislative changes allows the minister to appoint and remove the Executive Chairman at will, which effectively forces the PA’s Executive Chairman to follow the diktat of the government.   The PA Board’s role in formulating planning policy is no more.   The more important decisions on policy and on other matters were put in the hands of a small group of people, the Executive Committee, who in turn are under the control of the minister through the Executive Chairman.  The PA board is now a mere rubberstamp for the more controversial applications.   The new set-up makes it easier for PM Muscat and his ministers to fuel more and more developers’ ‘greed’.  The dons of two University of Malta faculties have rightly called for less political interference in the planning process.  That will not happen, however, for as long as the 2016 Act remains in its current format.

Also in 2016, new regulations allowed minor illegal developments to be regularised against the payment of a fine. If it were only very minor infringements that could be regularised, this measure would have been a sensible one.  But it turns out illegalities that are quite substantial are also being regularised.    It was originally intended to be a temporary measure but it was subsequently renewed.  Regularisation sends a clear message to developers (especially those who are ‘greedy’) – ‘build illegally and then sort out later’.

The Paceville Masterplan, again in 2016, was another example of government-induced ‘greed’, even if it was subsequently scrapped.   The PA Executive Chairman set the terms of reference for the consultants so as to cater for various tall-building proposals that several big developers had submitted to the PA.  The eventual draft masterplan proposals were developed around, and broadly in accordance with, the requirements of these various major developments proposals.  No planning or public interest justification was offered for these major proposed developments.  A typical case of the tail wagging the dog.   It’s turning urban planning on its head – using a planning tool to legitimise developments that proper scrutiny would have revealed to be unacceptable.

Dr Ebejer’s article continues tomorrow.