The Malta Independent on Sunday
Planning Authority fails its litmus test
The newly demerged Malta Environment and Planning Authority failed what can be considered as its first major test last week, and in a most spectacular fashion.
Not only did the supposedly new and improved new Planning Authority board approve, in the face of massive public outcry, two massive high-rise projects – in Sliema and Mriehel respectively - but the projects were approved in the absence of the Environment and Resources Authority’s (ERA) representative on the board, Victor Axiak.
Since last week’s vote, which gave the thumbs’ up to the Sliema project by a narrow one-vote margin, the public at large, environmentalists, eNGOs and the Church have gone ballistic over the fact that the PA could have approved such projects in the first place and, in the second place, that they were approved without the vote or even the opinion of the ERA’s chairman Prof. Axiak.
It is understood that the ERA is in the process of determining whether to appeal the PA board’s vote, which it must absolutely do. The PA’s decision was taken, according to civil society, in the face of claimed violations in policy, shortcomings in impact assessments and lack of a master plan on high-rise developments.
There have also been calls from civil society as well as the Opposition for all the correspondence on the issue between the ERA and its chairman and the PA on the two mega-projects to be published. The chairman insists that that correspondence should be kept under lock and key, while the ERA ruminates over appealing the PA’s decision.
While we can appreciate the rationale behind keeping the ERA’s views undisclosed for the time being, the ERA’s opinions on the project, which were not shared with the PA’s board despite the understandable absence of the chairman, those opinions should be published at the earliest possible opportunity and irrespective of whether the ERA will appeal or not.
But even so, that fateful PA board meeting should have been postponed until the ERA chairman was well enough to attend, and vote. That is because the very credibility of the whole MEPA demerger hangs in the balance, and very delicately at that.
But perhaps an even more glaring absence than the absence of the ERA chairman from the decision-making process behind the projects’ approvals last week was the absence of any kind of master plan for high rises and skyscrapers.
There are currently several high-rise and skyscraper developments being planned for the country, the vast majority of which are spread between the Sliema-Gzira and the Paceville-St George’s Bay areas.
So far, the high-rise developments that have actually been approved – major planning decisions with inevitable long-term impacts on the urban environment – have been approved in a piecemeal fashion and without being underpinned by a clear vision or strategy as to where we want to go as a country in this respect.
This lack of a holistic plan could very well result in uncontrolled developments and unpredictable impacts on urban life. Moreover, the construction of such large-scale projects will undoubtedly aggravate traffic problems on the already heavily congested road network in these areas.
What is abundantly clear is that tall building developments simply cannot be considered without a master plan. The concept of a possible moratorium as was recently proposed along such lines, however, has been dismissed by the Prime Minister.
It is true that tall buildings can replace dilapidated buildings and create a modern urban skyline that attracts foreign investment. It is, however, questionable whether Malta is undergoing the kind of accelerated economic growth that would justify the construction boom that is being proposed, particularly of late, or whether there is the demand from the foreign market for the kind of residential and/or office block towers that are being proposed.
High-rise districts with appropriate amenities, parking facilities, pedestrian and bus links are also essential to such projects. But, unfortunately, an efficient public transport system, key to successful tall buildings, is still sorely lacking in Malta. The inadequate utility infrastructure – electricity, water and drains – also needs to be upgraded to meet the needs of such structures.
One very interesting facet to this whole debate is the involvement of the Church and of Archbishop Charles Scicluna himself in environmental issues. Mgr Scicluna is daring to tread where his predecessors had held back. In an opinion piece in today’s issue, he takes the PA, the government and developers at large to task with the King Midas parable.
He has, however, been criticised for his environmental conscience and his outspoken views on the subject. This newspaper, however, welcomes his comments wholeheartedly. As one of the nation’s leaders, it is most reassuring to see the Archbishop taking the environmental stances that he has unflinchingly taken.
This newspaper could not agree more.