by Martin Galea
Prior to the 2013 election, the Labour Party had a framework manifesto it had committed to implement. In the section on environment, the document stated that by giving priority to the environment, the government would improve quality of life by implementing a number of deliverables.
These included strengthening the protection of outside development zones, empowering citizens to protect public domain zones, ensuring better and more effective management of Natura 2000 sites and ensuring the protection of the environment, the right to clean air and environmental health as well as ensuring that the right of action in favour of the environment would be entrenched in the Constitution.
These were fine words. Now, two years into the second legislature, one cannot say the situation has improved environmentally. Indeed, it has become worse.Environmentalists are justifiably angry at the performance of the government, which has systematically relaxed planning laws and the protection of the countryside and outside development zones, as well as urban conservation areas.
This has created a construction boom but, unfortunately, the planning aspect ‒ to think and act on how to best develop our most scarce resource: land ‒ does not seem to feature as a priority.
Certainly, the country is experiencing an economic boom.There is a building boom, record numbers of tourists as well as a sharp increase in population. This has created stress on our roads, the infrastructure, hospitals, schools and beaches and has impacted heavily on our way of life. People are tired of traffic jams, noise, pollution, lack of space, dust and cranes.
Now more than ever it is time to have real planning processes and a strong regulator who seriously looks into planning issues, such as planning development, conserving the countryside, relieving congestion on roads (not by building roads in the countryside however or concreting country lanes), protecting our built heritage in towns and villages and also ensuring that what is built is worth preserving in the future.
The Planning Authority is not doing this.It has patently failed in its mission and the mistakes it has made will impact on the quality of life of the people who make Malta their home for generations to come.One must admit that planning is not an easy task and is fraught with controversy but indicating where we can build, to what parameters and standard and giving environmental protection its proper weighting is fundamental in the most populated country in the world.This has not happened so far.
Make no mistake. Malta has become very ugly, choked with traffic and fumes and unbridled, bad development everywhere and at present there is no champion in government to take up this challenge.The pictures we show to lure tourists to these islands are of the areas we should seek to protect and which are the very ones under threat.This includes our built heritage, old palaces, churches, streetscapes but also our natural heritage, the countryside, the xagħri (garigue) and valleys.
However, planning has been left to speculators and developers. There seems to be no logic as to where permits for high-rise buildings are given. Planning in this regard is mainly relegated to where speculators have land.Nor have we assessed how many petrol stations are required, each one committing 2,000 square metres of supposedly green area to development. This at a time when all the major car manufacturers have committed to produce electric cars in the near future and when the government announces a commitment to phasing out carbon fuel cars over the next 20 years.
We must, therefore, see this for what it is.Land without permits costs a fraction of the price of land within a development zone, hence, the pressure to develop there.The Planning Authority, as the regulator, must live up to its name and plan the development of the built environment while conserving our patrimony. This is what we have the right to expect but, to date, we have received far, far less.
Political will is required to set the tone but, so far, it has not been forthcoming.
26 March 2019