I’d normally start such a piece by introducing the subject; but I think that in this case, the article headline is quite self-explanatory. The Planning Authority’s mission statement, as taken from their own Facebook page is “To achieve the vision that [the PA] have set for Malta, [the PA] need[s] to work carefully, responsibly and with a dedicated service” and that “it is only by implementing these principles in every process and decision that [the PA] can attain the best social, economic and cultural results for our country.” On paper it all sounds well and good – however in practice? Well let’s just say that most of you who have read that extract will probably have cried foul (for want of a better word) at their computer screen.
The Planning Authority in any country is meant to be there as a regulator, as an entity to provide a balance between progress and protecting the environment and heritage of our islands. What we are getting in Malta instead is a spineless organisation that finds itself twisting and turning to satisfy the whims of construction magnates and developers. We are getting the complete ignorance of both the environment and our heritage, all in the (supposed) name of “progress”.
The situation is coming to a point where this desire to seek progress is not pushing us a step forward; but sending us four steps back. Indeed nowadays, progress seems to be measured in the amount of high rises that can be built. But is this actually progress? Let’s take the Townsquare project, a massive 38 storey tower in Tigne, that will stick out of Sliema like a veritable sore thumb. It didn’t have a proper social impact assessment, the developers never met the local council, Water Services didn’t even respond to the environmental impact assessment – a worrying thing since Sliema’s sewage system is already on the brink – and, most of all, it’s calculated that it will add another 3,000 cars to Sliema’s already narrow and congested roads. And yet, it was approved. One would imagine that the pros of the site outweighed the cons for this to occur. But what will Townsquare be offering to Sliema and as such, to the island as a whole? Precisely, it will offer 10,000 square metres of retail space, almost 5,000 square metres of office space and 159 apartments – and I have my doubts as to whether these apartments will be priced in such a manner that would help alleviate Malta’s current sky-high (pun somewhat intended) property prices. In essence basically, it’s a shopping and business complex built to look like a tower out of Lord of the Rings.
Townsquare however isn’t the only high-rise that will be rearing it’s head over the Maltese islands over the coming years. The number of high-rises proposed in various areas is in the double digits – the exact details have been summed up by Philip Leone-Ganado on The Times earlier this year. This all stems from the Planning Authority’s Floor Area Ratio (FAR) policy which basically allowed for the development of high-rises in the areas of Gzira, Tigne, Qawra, Marsa and Paceville. Mriehel was later added to this policy, curiously AFTER the public consultation period had closed. Each of these sites could potentially be forever altered if the high-rises planned for them go through. The one thing that only makes this situation even worse, is that it isn’t just these sites that will be altered; but also views such as that of the Valletta skyline, which will be dwarfed by the Townsquare developments, as seen from Birgu and also the view from Mdina, which will find the raft of towers planned for Mriehel in it’s way. Again the claim is that this is all done in the name of progress – but is it really progress? Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for reasonable development that actually takes into account all the factors at hand. But will these projects be worth the damage that they’re going to inevitably cause to our skyline? Will they be worth overloading our already struggling infrastructure for? Personally, I have my doubts.
Let us for a moment assume the argument that developments such as the sky-scrapers mentioned above are done in favour of progress and are hence justifiable; and focus instead on other decisions. If not for some of its priceless views, Malta’s appeal has undoubtedly always been that of its heritage. The bobbleheads at the Planning Authority however even somehow manage to fail to protect this. An example of this crass ignorance of heritage can be found by looking back to to the middle of 2017, when the construction of a showroom, five maisonettes, seven apartments, four penthouses and 18 garages across four storeys was approved in Mosta, on top of an archaeological site. Yes you read that correctly. The site is known as Tal-Qares and prehistoric remains such as cart ruts, megaliths and according to experts, possibly even a third hypogeum. Alas however, this was all not enough for the Planning Authority who decided that the site ‘has low archaeological value’ and so the development could occur. However, the report done by the Superintendance of Cultural Heritage says otherwise. In fact on page 10 of this report, it explicitly sets out three recommendations, with one of them being that rock-cutting for construction purposes should not be conducted as it will impact the archaeological features recorded on the southern end of the field. The same report states that the owner of the now developed plot, Joseph Sammut, refused to allow archaeologists to conduct a study on the land. Now the reason why, is apparent.
Now, I can get why the towers can be construed by some as symbolising progress. They’re housing business on the most part, and that obviously brings money into the economy after all. But for someone to justify this project in the name of progress, he’d have to have a fully grown cactus across his eyes and a broken lampshade instead of his brain. In what world does the development of a showroom and a bunch of houses, which again surely won’t be contributing to lowering the currently obscene property prices in Malta, justify the destruction of an archaeological site? I cannot even put into words how downright disgusting this decision is and the precedent it sets for similar sites such as this.
Sadly this isn’t an isolated example. More recently the historic neo-gothic Villa St. Ignatius in Balluta, which was probably the first of its style on the islands and was already listed as a landmark in 1839, was not granted heritage protection by the Planning Authority. This same villa had already been subject to controversy when a video was taken of workmen demolishing external parts of it, without permission of the PA. Indeed the Planning Authority sent a representative to stop the works, but half an hour after that representative had left, the workers were back hacking away at the building. This is the culture of impunity towards our heritage that the PA has fostered. Indeed, when chased by the Times of Malta regarding the issue; the PA never replied. Now it is apparent why, with the building being refused protection, even though the newer Jesuit College which is on the same property is already protected. At the same time though, heritage protection was given to a row of houses in Msida. You’d have been hard-pressed to miss this piece of news too, because the PA’s Facebook page tirelessly and shamelessly sponsored the post reporting this onto our collective news feeds for weeks. Why one and not the other? Probably because Msida isn’t the ideal venue for a shopping complex, petrol station or classy boutique hotel. Talk about giving us a penny for a pound.
But of course, the crux of the Planning Authority’s incapacity to do it’s job comes as soon as someone mentions the abbreviation ‘ODZ’. Standing for Outside Development Zone, it’s a term that logically speaking would be used to describe land where development is not allowed. Quite a simple concept, you’d think. In Malta however the logic of our environmental authorities seems to have deserted them and with it so has the understanding of this simple concept. The number of ODZ permits that have been granted over the past years is countless. Villas, showrooms, schools, petrol stations – you name it, it’s being built in green areas. Maybe such land shouldn’t be called ODZ anymore; something like TODZBNRIYRE – Technically Outside Development Zone But Not Really If You’re Rich Enough. It’s a bit of a mouthful granted, but I think it will catch on eventually.
This point brings us to the big one; politics. Of course everything in Malta just HAS to involve the P-word. It is however undeniable that there is political involvement when it comes to the granting of permits.
A study conducted in recent months has provided proof that before each electoral cycle, ODZ approval ratings have risen substantially. It is calculated that the case officer’s recommendation for refusal on an application is normally turned down on average 15% of the time. However, it is estimated that in the 2003 electoral campaign, 40% of the case officer’s recommendations to refuse an ODZ permit were turned down. The figure for the same statistic stands at just above 35% for the 2008 electoral campaign. An investigation by Malta Today meanwhile found that in the run up to the most recent election, the Planning Authority board met everyday as opposed to three times a week and granted a total of 1,247 permits in the five week electoral campaign. An example of these approved applications, as cited by Malta Today, was a plan for four villas spread over an area of 1,400 square metres in Kalkara near Wied Rinella, a spread of land which is an Area of Ecological Importance, which enjoys Level 4 protection. The kicker? Development on this same tract of land had been refused by the PA on four separate occasions before. This all points to what the study mentioned above concludes; that there was political corruption within the Planning Authority and that “patterns in the data and the qualitative evidence suggested that permits were granted in exchange for political party support.”
One would think though, that if the Government – whoever it is made up of – is corrupting the Planning Authority; at least the Opposition, which is also represented on the Planning Authority board, would try to stop such corruption. Ryan Callus, the Opposition’s representative, however in recent times has also come under fire for his decisions on the planning board. Just a couple of weeks ago, Callus voted in favour of a permit application for a controversial petrol station in Maghtab. This was after he voted against it in March and after he dodged the next vote on the project in December. The Government representative on the board, Clayton Bartolo, meanwhile also changed his vote from being against in December, to being in favour just a month later. Initially it had been rejected twice due to it’s proximity to residents and the taking up of a rural area, which is defined by the PA’s Strategy Plan for Environment and Development (SPED for short). Now, both Bartolo’s and Callus’ change of heart would have been reasonable if the application had changed after it was rejected. Except it didn’t. Not one bit. Callus and Bartolo essentially changed his vote even though the application itself did not change. The reasoning? Because the application conformed with the petrol station guidelines that are in place. Which begs the question – why not just accept it in the first place then? Why reject it and only now, a month later, decide to accept it? I’ll stop here and allow you to draw your own conclusions on this matter.
Indeed only the Democractic Party and Alternattiva seem to actually care about our environment – and it is at least comforting to see that not all sanity has been lost within our politicians. Alas however, the words of these two small parties are merely shouts into an echoless void at the moment. The only way this ongoing rape is going to stop is if we, the people, actually protest against it. I’m not implying that all construction and development on the island must come to a grinding halt; but I am implying that everything has to be done to protect our environment, culture and heritage. Petition against ODZ projects, bring abuses to light, make your opinion heard. Think of the people who will eventually come after us, and think of what we are going to leave for them. Do you want to leave them a concrete jungle? Or do you want to save what’s left of Malta’s environment for them to enjoy? I know what I’d choose. Do you?
Headline Picture Credit: Steve Bonello Arts & Illustrations (illustration for Din l-Art Helwa Save The Countryside Campaign 2015)
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