The new head of the Environment and Resources Authority, Vince Cassar recently went on record saying the regulator’s position can easily be ignored by the Planning Authority. “When you are on a minority on a board, all you can do is give your opinion and try to get other members to agree with you,” he said in a radio interview.

Cassar is a seasoned architect who has been one of few voices of reason during his tenure as chairperson of the PA board. His statements came on the back of a number of PA decisions which have been reversed in the courts, proof that the planning regulator has acted against the interests of the country and its citizens by greenlighting applications that fell foul of policies and procedures.

The ERA will struggle to impose its vision with a single vote out of 13, although a number of massive developments have been approved by the smaller planning commissions where the ERA, the local councils or eNGOs have no vote. This procedural grey area is repeatedly exploited to favour developers and blindside the resistance to such projects.

The not-so-insignificant ERA approval of the Hili development in Comino has raised questions among citizens and activists, who argue that the project will ruin Comino’s relatively unspoilt beauty. In this sense, the ERA’s decisions can be seen as contradicting statements about the will for change.

Otherwise, Cassar’s lamentations mirror those of another minority which, without executive power, has a better track record than ERA in defending the environment: civil society. Detailed proposals for planning and environmental reforms made by these organisations in the last few years have called for a change in the composition of the boards, the introduction of severe parliamentary scrutiny and personal liability for board members and a radical overhaul of the whole planning process.

There hasn’t been so much of a whimper from either side of the political world, which remains deeply indebted to the development lobby in a vicious cycle where votes are exchanged for land grabs, coastal concessions and a general free for all. Tellingly, a recent protest by residents in Nigret echoed the general anger felt in other towns at the betrayal of the fresh €700 million urban greening electoral promise.

Civil society’s efforts to raise awareness about excessive construction and the loss of environmental resources have been commendable, to the point that these issues are now blipping on Labour’s surveys. Saturday’s protest for reform will, hopefully, see thousands out in the streets but, in the present scenario, there is only so much that protests can achieve.

Civil society has to raise its game and think beyond the increasingly symbolic manifestations of anger, which are sometimes reductive if not fragmented: coffins in front of the Malta Developers Association are eye-catching but do not scratch the surface of the intricate system that leads to construction deaths rising every year.

A lesson drawn from civil society’s own experiences, for example in Marsascala, is that public outrage putting pressure on politicians’ votes and their electability can turn the cards on the table. As the government continues to trample over the remaining rules and regulations across various sectors, civil society must be ready to show the bipartisan establishment that it is willing to decisively challenge its hegemony on a political level, besides exposing the private interests supporting it.

From voices in the wilderness, the resistance to overdevelopment has to represent the public’s righteous anger while looking at politics hard in the eye.

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