Attack the local plans: how to redress the democratic deficit on planning

The only way to protest the development assault on good sense and serenity, is to force the redrawing of local plans in Malta, whether by court action or by popular referendum

In recent years, Malta’s institutional problems have been under the constant glare of local and international media scrutiny. But while the focus has (justifiably) been on rule-of-law issues, no one seems to be scrutinising other areas of national concern, where the institutions we rely on for our protection also tend to prove faulty – or worse – in action. Perhaps the most glaring omission concerns the environment. 

On too many occasions, over the years, have the country’s planning institutions and environmental agencies simply let the country down: among other things, by consistently overriding all legitimate public objections, in a mad scramble to approve controversial, land-grabbing development projects.  

The latest Planning Authority decision – to approve a new Chinese embassy on 19,500sq.m of woodland in Pembroke – seems to merely cement the popular perception of a system that is designed to favour development at all costs… even, at times, against the government’s own planning laws and policies. 

In approving this permit, the PA decided to close an eye at multiple aspects of the local plans for the Pembroke area: including a height limitations of three storeys which the embassy’s six storeys will now double And while the Environment and Resources Authority objected to the loss of supposedly protected woodland area, and to the destruction of natural habitats of significant ecological importance… chairperson Victor Axiak later admitted that his ‘hands were tied’ by the decision to zone the area for the Chinese embassy in 2012. 

In the end, all such objections were overcome by a final vote that yielded the all-too familiar PA approval pattern: nine against two; with only the representatives of eNGOs and the local council voting against. (Important note: all PA members are handpicked by government ministers, which effectively are upholding planning rules only when it suits their agenda). While the details tend to vary from case to case, the same pattern can be seen underpinning all such major planning decisions. 

The reality is the 2006 Local Plans were designed by civil servants, on orders and by approval of MPs; who have been in turn petitioned by landowners and developers to determine which areas can enjoy particular heights, or mixed-use allowances to benefit their own business goals. 

As a result, what little remains of Malta’s open spaces is constantly being eaten up by a glut of uncontrolled development, which no one – least of all, any of the institutions that regulate the sector – seems capable of bringing to heel. 

In the former Trade Fair Grounds in Naxxar, for instance, there are currently three permit applications under consideration by the PA, for separate projects that would – if approved – result in the construction of 675 apartments: including an eight-storey tower for 113 apartments. Until 2017, this site had been designated as a “white area”, where no development could take place at all. 

But the Planning Authority approved development parameters for the site, then paved the way for separate applications on different plots. It remains to be seen if the projects will be approved; it is clear, however, that no thought at all is being given to the longer-term consequences of all this unbridled construction. 

Developers no longer even conceal their disdain for rules and procedures: and just keep submitting applications which openly defy all Malta’s laws and policies, on the understanding that the entire system is geared in their favour. But there are also indications that the wider public is growing increasingly exasperated by this state of affairs; and the more let down they feel, the likelier they are to eventually take matters into their own hands. From this perspective, it is not incidental that six environmental organisations will be taking court action to challenge a government deed that ceded the l-Aħrax and Miżieb woodlands to the hunting lobby FKNK. It represents a last, desperate stand against a field system; and while the court action, in itself, may or may not work… it nonetheless points its finger at precisely where this struggle needs to move. 

The only way for residents all over Malta and Gozo to protest this assault on all good sense and our serenity, is to crowdfund a new campaign: forcing the redrawing of local plans in Malta, whether by court action or (preferably) by popular referendum. 

This is the only common road left for all fragmented residents’ groups, eNGOs and activists to redress the institutional bias against them. It is this saga – the use of local plans, sealed by the whim of MPs for the benefit of developers and landowners, to the detriment of ordinary residents – that must be disrupted, if our last open spaces are to be saved.