‘Planningspeak’ by Rudolf Ragonesi

September 14, 2007

14th September 2007

Newspeak was coined by George Orwell in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four to refer to the redefinition of words that would help the regime suppress opposition and freedom of speech. Orwell understood that the manipulation of language can be a key to control. Some developers today have become a very powerful force to reckon with, and some are quick to attempt to redefine words in the planning laws to get around even the most obvious restrictions.

The battle plan runs as follows: try to influence and shape policy, then give the widest interpretation to any words in policies and laws that may restrict your actions, both at application stage and on appeal. One of the first examples of ‘planningspeak’ to hit our shores was the notorious “cluster villas”, a word which sprang out fully developed, like Athene from the head of Zeus, to justify blocks of apartments in Madliena in a zone limited to villa development. That was in the early nineties.

Today ‘planningspeak’ has come a long way, and includes a number of redefinitions. Here are some examples: ‘existing footprint’ is being defined by one applicant as including illegal structures, roads and parking areas;‘disturbed land’, a phrase generally used to refer to an area which has neither ecological nor agricultural value, becomes a term used to build a case for development, which, with the addition of a few trees, suddenly improves the existing landscape;‘re-development of existing commercial complex’ may include an enormous change of said complex from, say, tea rooms to villas and pools;‘Permitted development outside development zone’ is fast becoming a term that includes developments of all shapes and sizes, particularly tourism development, despite clear policies to the contrary;‘tourism complex’ undergoes a metamorphosis to include villas with swimming pools;‘Tourism Compliance Certificate’ becomes a trump card that gives you an automatic access to planning permission;‘vicinity to existing hotel’ comes to include the outermost boundaries of a site far from said hotel;and last but not least, ‘hotel development’ starts to include the development of, you guessed it, once again, ‘villas and pools’.

So you see, it really does not matter whether or not the planning laws and policies have set restrictions to development in any part of our islands, after long years of work by planners, public consultation and debate by legislators. If you cannot change the law or policy in your favour, just change the meaning of the word of the law, and hey presto, you have hit the jackpot.

Once you have mastered this technique, you should specialise in speculation and invest in property where development is limited by planning laws. Then you could buy said property for the market price based upon said laws, and use your linguistic and etymological skills, and other gifts if you possess them, to stretch development on said property beyond the boundaries of interpretation. Voilà, you have a sure winner, a Lm10 million site may suddenly be worth Lm14 million, or a Lm70,000 site worth Lm3.5 million.

Policy TOU 10 of the Structure Plan relates specifically to Ta’ Cenc, and contemplates “multi-ownership tourism hotel development, in the vicinity of the existing hotel”. So short of changing the law or applying an inexistent law, just change the meaning of the words ‘vicinity’ and ‘hotel development’ and you suddenly have villas and pools just above Mgarr ix-Xini at the edge of Ta’ Cenc. If the Minister responsible for Mepa and the Structure Plan feels obliged to inform the Mepa Chairman that this area does not fall within the vicinity of the hotel, then as developer, just state that said Minister is thus attempting to revise the Plan, which he cannot do except through set legal procedures. In other words developer would thus, through ‘planningspeak’ , set in stone the definition of ‘vicinity’ and any other interpretation of the word is tantamount to changing the Law. As for adding villas to hotel development on the basis of the words ‘multi-ownership’ mentioned in TOU 10, this cannot be done unless and until villas are recognised by a specific law defining, permitting and controlling multi-ownership schemes, which Section 19.13 of the Structure Plan Final Draft calls for, but which to date does not exist. In such case, apply ‘planningspeak’ to develop your own definition of multi-ownership hotel development and ignore the requirements of Section 19.13. I

t is precisely such ‘planningspeak’ that compels environmental organisations to take certain cases to Appeal, for if left unchecked, this trend may go far as to subvert the very rule of planning law upon which our aspiring sustainable society is based. August 2007

Dr Rudolf Ragonesi is Director of the Gaia Foundation

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