Never one known for mincing her words, Din l-Art Ħelwa president Simone Mizzi tells Caroline Muscat that political parties must prevent developers blackmailing them or saving any land is hopeless.

The idea to build three hotels on a stretch of public land in the south was outlined and proposed in a brief prepared by the government.

The brief was prepared by a unit whose duties do not include identifying public land to hand over to developers.

It is the latest in a list of large development projects outlined in plans, reflecting what Simone Mizzi describes as the government’s rush to fulfil pre-electoral promises.

“This government is in a hurry to carry out and fulfil a lot of promises made. It was elected on a manifesto that contradicted itself because on one side it said it was going to help and favour development, and on the other side it said it was going to protect the environment.

“We do not see this protection,” Ms Mizzi says.

The government is rushing through planning policies without a master plan to guide land use.

That plan expired in 2012 and has not been replaced with an adequate plan that takes stock of what is left in the country, what needs to be protected and what space can be built on.

It is like constructing a series of rooms without an architect’s plan of the whole building, is how the NGO defines it.

Last month, DLĦ wrote an open letter to the Prime Minister, drawing his attention to the lack of safeguards to protect the countryside.

It was signed by six former and serving presidents of the organisation, calling for more adequate plans to stem rampant development.

As yet, they have had no reply, save for an acknowledgment.

What is of even more concern is that the power to decide on land use may be taken away from Parliament, and given to a minister.

“We are back to the 1980s, the time when land was given at the wave of a pen,” Ms Mizzi says.

Last September, Planning Parliamentary Secretary Michael Falzon said that the Malta Environment and Planning Authority has issued no fewer than 14 new planning policies since a Labour government came into power.

He said this was a sign that Mepa was being proactive.

Ms Mizzi agrees: “It shows Mepa is being proactive, but only to protect and favour the development lobby... the planning policies being pushed forward very rapidly are all in favour of building.”

The revised policy on buildings Outside Development Zones has no less than 25 circumstances that allow construction to happen.

“Some are genuine, some are necessary, but do you do them in such a hurry without measuring their impact?”

The ODZ policy is only the latest in a string of policies revised to facilitate development, all in the name of eliminating bureaucracy.

DLĦ is concerned that environmental safeguards gradually built into planning laws over two decades are being eradicated.

“We are seeing a lot of policies being passed and approved very rapidly without appropriate studies on the impact they are going to have in future.

“The government, through Mepa, is clawing back any safeguards that were available for the environment,” she says.

There is an electorate out there that cares about environmental protection

Ms Mizzi admits the problem with land abuse did not start under this administration.

“Land has always been used as a pawn for politicians. The vote blackmail has been used with the public with both political parties… they must come together and end it.

“But in 25 years of a previous administration, it took a long time for environmental conscience to come.

“I’m not saying it was perfect but we did have an environmental management plan… whether action was taken is another problem,” she says.

Whole swathes of land were given out under a PN administration too, she says, pointing to the 2006 rationalisation plan as an example.

“But do we like what we see?” she asks. The concern remains that whatever environmental conscience was created over the years is being annihilated.

She is unequivocal in saying this government has zero environmental conscience... “sub-zero in fact”.

“This government has been in administration for a year and nearly nine months now and we have not heard one word on how it’s going to protect the environment… land is our most precious resource and it is at a premium so what is not built over needs to be protected.”

Photo: Paul Spiteri LucasPhoto: Paul Spiteri Lucas

She adds there were only two government decisions that were important for the environment: the hunting hiatus for two weeks in autumn and the dismissal of hunters’ claims in court that the referendum should be stopped.

But these two moves alone are far from what is needed.

She is critical of the latest proposal currently out for public consultation that will change planning rules so alterations in street alignments or zoning will no longer need the written consent of 75 per cent of neighbours affected by changes.

“This will diminish further citizens’ right to be active participants in the shaping of their immediate environment,” she says.

The organisation she heads has dubbed Environment Minister Leo Brincat as Pontius Pilate, washing his hands of the responsibility of environmental protection.

She qualifies that statement: “[Environment Minister] Leo [Brincat]’s heart is in the right place.

“To be honest his ministry was stillborn from day one because he is not empowered to act.

“We have an environment ministry and we have a planning ministry but the tragedy is that environment and sustainable development sit in one ministry but the management of land, which is the biggest resource the environment has, sits in another,” Ms Mizzi says.

Still, she insists the public needs to hear the minister’s voice.

“He could still use his voice. And there I still have high hopes. I would like to hear him telling us how he’s going to protect the environment.”

The Sunday Times of Malta had interviewed the Environment Minister last April when plans for the split between the environmental and planning functions of Mepa were still in their infancy. It seems the situation is still that way, at least as far as the NGOs are informed.

“We have not heard anything more about the split. DLĦ submitted its proposals. We still don’t know how it’s going to work… but the knowledge of environmental protection and planning regulations must fuse.

“What we have seen so far with news on the demerger is that the environmental ministry is now going to have one vote on the Mepa board.

“It’s true it didn’t have this before but one vote doesn’t give it the power to veto on a board where most of the appointees are political,” she says.

Until the moment when environment gets a voice on land protection, mega development projects are being tabled and discussed.

Developer Anton Camilleri, known as Tal-Franċiz and a council member of the Malta Developers Association (MDA), wants to build four sites in St George’s Bay stretching from the top of the promenade down to the bay including the gardens of the protected Villa Rosa and Cresta Quay where a new hotel is earmarked.

The environment and planning agency is being proactive, but only to protect and favour the development lobby

Michael Soler of the Gasan Group is proposing a development encompassing the old Union Club in Sliema that includes a 33-floor-high central tower as well as a shopping mall, 181 apartments, almost 5,000 square metres of office space and more than 9,000 square metres of retail area.

Sandro Chetcuti, president of the MDA, is supporting the government brief for the construction of three hotels on a stretch of public land from Żonqor Point to Xgħajra, pointing out that the ODZ land is “shabby” and development would be of benefit.

Ms Mizzi insists the south must learn from the mistakes of the north not to let the whole landscape be raped by modern development.

“The south is very wealthy in heritage. It’s got loads of fortifications it can restore and renew and build a whole tourism industry around what it does best.

“It’s got the fishing villages, it’s got wonderful food and lovely water. So, yes, bring tourism to the south but let’s do it in a way where we don’t destroy the foreshore. Leave that for the public to enjoy,” she says.

Last week, DLĦ launched a campaign ‘to save the countryside’ to raise awareness of the beauty of the country’s land and the biodiversity it holds.

Its Facebook page got 4,500 likes within a few days.

“This shows there is an electorate out there that cares about environmental protection,” she says.

Independent journalism costs money. Support Times of Malta for the price of a coffee.

Support Us