A bankrupt planning system

It is shocking to learn that the SCH has now dropped objections to a three-storey extension to a baroque palazzo and the construction of a swimming pool on the site of Villa Buleben in Żebbuġ

The approval of a five-storey-high, 88 apartment complex and nine shops on the site of the former Dolphin Centre is an affront to the concept of democratic and community centred planning.

The massive development is right in the middle of a densely-populated area and right next to an urban conservation area and a tranquil residential neighbourhood in Balzan.

Surely, there is nothing wrong in redeveloping the site and build a decent number of new residences in an already developed area. But what is wrong is the planning process that seems geared to maximise the number of apartments on the site.

The approval by a three-member commission of such a large-scale development, despite objections by residents, the local council and concerns expressed by the Superintendence for Cultural Heritage, speaks volumes about the bankruptcy of the planning system.

It is clear that a project of such a magnitude should have at least been delegated to the more representative planning board in which the local council has a vote. Such a project should also have warranted environmental impact studies.

Instead, the PA chose to apply the blanket rule introduced in an annex to development guidelines allowing five-storey developments on any site within the development zone even those close to UCAs. In this case, one cannot even blame the pro-development local plans issued in 2006, which earmarked the site for three floor buildings.

Far from good planning, this is clearly a case of fitting the maximum number of apartments in the limited space available. To further aggravate the situation the applicant has also resorted to the tried and tested trick of salami slicing applications by presenting another application on a neighbouring site which if approved would increase development by 11 apartments and nine shops.

While the developer claims that he had bought the site at a later stage after presenting this application, the PA should have asked him to present a new application for both sites to ensure a holistic assessment of the impact of the whole development.

This salami slicing of applications makes a mockery of the whole planning process as it enables developers to get their development approved in stages well after a site has been irremediably compromised.

This practice should be banned through legal changes. One way of doing this is to forbid anyone from presenting an application on an adjacent site within a timeframe of five years.  In this way developers will be encouraged to present applications covering all the land pockets they own or are in the process of owning.

Neither should one forget the history of planning abuse which started with the illegal demolition of a historical 18th century townhouse to make way for the dolphin complex in the late 1980s, an abuse which was later sanctioned by the PA under a Nationalist administration.

What started as blatant planning abuse under another administration has now been rewarded in the issue of another abusive permit to a developer close to the Labour administration in a never-ending cycle of planning abuse.

In view of the site’s history the PA should have at least directed development which improves not worsens the existing situation.

While it is highly probable that this particular development is in breach of existing policies and local plans as argued by at least four different architects, including a former minister who attended the meeting, this is also symptomatic of planning regulations that defy the concept of democratic planning.

One way of addressing this deficit is by giving local councils representation in planning commissions which take decisions on scores of applications that are leaving a scar on Maltese towns and villages. Moreover, whenever local councils object to projects, developers should be obliged to address the concerns raised until these are satisfied.

Local councils should be given a leading say in drafting new local plans which take into account the aspirations and quality of life of existing residents.   

But this leader is also concerned by the attitude adopted by ERA and the Superintendence for Cultural Heritage. These regulatory authorities are absconding on their duty to protect the environment and heritage. And it is worrying that even in cases where the Superintendence keeps objecting as was the case with the Balzan development, the heritage watchdog fails to follow through by sending its representatives to meetings where such decisions are taken.

It is shocking to learn that the SCH has now dropped objections to a three-storey extension to a baroque palazzo and the construction of a swimming pool on the site of Villa Buleben in Żebbuġ.

Just two years ago the SCH was calling for Grade 1 scheduling for Villa Buleben, the maximum protection possible, instead of the current Grade 2 scheduling. Grade 1 scheduling would have precluded any new development on the garden.

But two years down the line after modification to plans which removed outrageous excavations under the historical villa, the SCH has dropped its call for Grade 1 scheduling and accepted the development in principle.

To add insult to injury this development is being approved through an outline permit, which sets parameters for the development leaving a number of crucial details to a subsequent application.

Over the past decade, the SCH has earned respect by standing its ground against outrageous developments. Unfortunately, we cannot help noticing that the SCH is softening its position, becoming more disposed to engage with developers, effectively allowing them to put some lip stick on a pig’s face.

The same attitude is being shown by ERA, which this Friday is set to decide on its position on the redevelopment of the Mellieħa Bay Hotel. The new project will be double the current built footprint and ERA is expected to take a favourable position.

What Malta needs at the moment is democratic planning and robust policies, and not back room dealing between regulatory authorities and developers.