The chair of Malta's environmental watchdog has admitted that the authority has limited influence on planning decisions. 

Vince Cassar, who leads the Environment and Resources Authority, acknowledged that the current PA setup meant ERA's views could be easily ignored. 

“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," Cassar said during an interview on 103 – Malta’s Heart.

ERA only has one member on the 13-person PA board, with that representative having the same influence and say as other members. 

Cassar, who used to chair the PA’s predecessor Mepa, admitted that he did not agree with splitting that entity into separate planning and environmental arms.

At the time, the split was presented as a way of placing Malta "at the forefront of environmental standards". But critics have since argued that the split allowed the PA to forge ahead with planning decisions without needing to consider their environmental ramifications. 

Questioned about overdevelopment in Malta, Cassar said according to the local plans and policies, there are actually areas that have not yet been developed.

“In that respect, there is no overdevelopment. But if I look at the well-being of society, then yes, there is overdevelopment. The urban and the rural environments are not being integrated, and the necessary green spaces are not being given to communities”, Cassar said.

Comino, tunnel and land reclamation

The ERA chairman was also asked about plans to redevelop a hotel in Comino, the seemingly shelved project to develop an undersea tunnel between Malta and Gozo and the government's push for land reclamation. 

Comino should not be subject to further development on virgin land, Cassar said. Any building on the island should be contained within areas that have already been developed in the past.

Activists have questioned the sustainability of plans by Hili Group to redevelop a new hotel on Comino. Plans presented by the developers propose to develop more of the built-up area than the existing site, while reducing the overall site footprint. 

ERA approved the proposal last summer, before Cassar was appointed authority chair. 

Cassar insisted that no virgin land should be trampled over as part of the new hotel development. 

The ERA chairman was similarly cynical about plans for a Malta-Gozo tunnel.

He said he does not agree with the tunnel option, as it is an expensive and technologically challenging one that people might not even want to use.

Cassar said an easier solution would be improving the sea links between the two islands.

He also sounded the warning on land reclamation. Prime Minister Robert Abela hinted at land reclamation plans last month but has yet to provide further details.

Cassar said the issue needs to be properly studied, as it will lead to further development and infrastructure pressures. He said land reclamation will lead to more traffic, drainage and water consumption.

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