Discrimination: the name of the game

The current mess in planning is the result of many decisions taken over the years intended to soothe the Maltese psyche

File Photo
File Photo

If there is one thing where discrimination is justified, it is in development planning. One can build five storeys in one site but only two in another site. In this case, the discrimination is between the two sites and not between the owners of the two sites.

Even so, this sort of discrimination is almost anathema to the Maltese psyche. All Maltese hate discrimination, except when it is in one’s favour! Then all sorts of justifications are invented, some of them after the event, so that discrimination does not look like discrimination.

Many moons ago, a few weeks after I was appointed Minister, I tried to explain to a fellow citizen that under the new administration, he would not have obtained a particular building permit that had been issued by the Lorry Sant set-up. I was trying to explain my attempt at putting some sense in building permits.

Some time afterwards, his architect asked me why I am openly discriminating against his client. I was shocked. I explained to the architect that the discrimination was based on the site where the development took place not on who his client was. I suppose the architect eventually saw my point... but I am sure his client never did.

My penchant for needlessly making enemies stuck with me during all my years with Ministerial responsibilities - most of them because what I thought was obvious, was not obvious at all to so many. That was the result of yours truly’s lack of understanding of the Maltese psyche.

The current mess in planning is the result of many decisions taken over the years intended to soothe the Maltese psyche. So, instead of considering the situation in each street or part thereof, we finally ended up with a practically uniform height limitation all over the country - except for the more important exceptions such as in Urban Conservation Areas.

Today, many have come to understand UCA (Urban Conservation Areas) exception, mostly thanks to environmental NGOs. And then there are areas where a wink was all that was needed for high tower blocks to be allowed. People ‘understand’ this as well - but with a grudge because in this instance, it is not always the case where the siting justifies the development... and we are back to the idea of who owns the land. Old habits die hard.

The old structure plan that had actually become obsolete was changed with SPED (Strategic Plan for the Environment and Development) that is not site specific and has become a lsit of good intentions that can be undermined easily by whoever has other intentions.

The problem is that the differences between planning zones do not consider the smaller areas making up the zone. So saying that in a particular locality the development limit is four floors plus penthouse is easy to understand and to help lay down - at least temporarily - the eternal ghost of discrimination.

It turns out that in many areas of any locality there are streets that are not in the UCA but with characteristics worthy of conservation - such as self-imposed front gardens or a uniform skyline. The ghost of discrimination strikes back and reminds us that a street is a street, irrespective of its characteristics...

Hence the Planning Authority is issuing permits according to its ‘one size fits all policy’, without giving itself the luxury of exercising the discretion of discriminating in favour of the existing area characteristics, and so risking being accused of discrimination ‘ad hominem’. The PA, perhaps, is afraid of exercising such discrimination, simply because it understands the Maltese psyche!

If Johnny gets a permit for five floors, than I have a right for a permit for at least five floors. The area of the site does not seem to matter, so long as Johnny does not get any more than me. And it goes on and on.

Playing with height limitations, by reducing the minimum legal height of living spaces has lured many to squeeze in an extra floor in the ‘allowed’ height, with the concept of number of floors - hence density - being thrown to the dogs. The responsibility for this lies squarely on the PA’s shoulder.

Malta’s population increasing by 25% from 400,000 to half a million in a matter of a few years also contributed to the push for increasing the number of residential units in the same space, with one terraced house being replaced by a block of five or six apartments.

People are not building flats as a hobby, because they have nothing else to do, as if the country does not need more flats.

People are building flats because we have no plan that ensures a limit to our population size while most government ‘economic’ decisions, in fact, push towards increasing our population.

Colonel Bogey

The Ombudsman’s report on the ‘accelerated’ promotion of four officers in the Armed Forces of Malta has shocked many.

Not only because this was a case of blatant discrimination for party political reasons, but because of the bizarre brazenness and pretentiousness with which the responsible minister, Manuel Mallia, carried out the illegal exercise.

One can now understand better Mallia’s reluctance to hand over the relevant files to the Ombudsman, to the extent that the Ombudsman had to sue the ministry in Court to win the day.

Even more shocking is the fact that the AFM Commander at the time, Brigadier Martin Xuereb, only heard of the promotions from the Malta Government Gazzette!

Knowing Mallia personally, I am completely flabbergasted by his way of doing things.

I need not go into the gory details, but one question pops up. Was there any reason why this exercise had to be carried out so swiftly? Was there any threat of mutiny in the Armed Forces? Why the impatience, when the exercise could have been done more subtly over a decent period?

The current chief of our Army, which, by the way, is not a Labour Party section, is Brigadier Jeffrey Curmi who was a Major until September 2013 and sprinted to the top as a result of four fast promotions, becoming a commander in December of the same year.

To put it in the Ombudsman’s words, “the Minister did not bother to observe the niceties of a selection process but jumped ahead to the promotion of the favoured few.”

This obscene discrimination reduced Labour’s electoral promise of meritocracy to shreds. And so it remains.