Everyone is promoting the idea of sustainable development, but how are we going to get there? For a start, the phrase "sustainable development" is hard to pin down. It is broad and open to interpretation. In a wide-ranging way, it suggests a commitment to future generations. We want to bequeath a beautiful, clean environment to those who will live after us. We also want to pass on a healthy economy so that our children can earn a good living.

The idea is that the welfare of the environment is not incompatible with that of development. It's an excellent idea; however a closer look reveals a minefield.

Take the example of Għadira Bay. Behind the beach, BirdLife manages a bird sanctuary that started 30 years ago and Din l-Art Ħelwa has restored the Red Tower on the hill overlooking the sanctuary. Ten years ago, the two NGOs established the Foresta 2000 site, together with the government. This protected site stretches over the countryside behind the beach, to Ċumnija and Qammiegħ on the far side. Further left, towards Anchor Bay, lies the boundary of the Majjistral nature park, which extends to Manikata and Golden Bay.

Near the beach, the Mellieħa Holiday Centre, or Danish Village, is low-lying and sited slightly away from the road. It is landscaped with trees and hardly noticeable as you drive past. It was given a permit to extend, with the new units following the same style as the rest of the complex.

On the other hand, the nearby Seabank Hotel is several storeys high and right on the road. It is extremely visible and not landscaped, displaying no attempt to blend in with its predominantly rural location near the sea.

The Seabank recently obtained a controversial permit, opposed by several NGOs including Din l-Art Ħelwa, to construct over 200 additional rooms, with pools and restaurants, on seven storeys and intended to cater mainly for all-inclusive package tours. The structures will extend into a protected area of countryside.

Mepa's Natural Heritage Advisory Committee (NHAC) was against granting the Seabank permit. It said it must "be considered in the light of the overall value of such land in terms of landscape and rural conservation" and "by no stretch of the imagination can this be considered 'restrained' (that is, moderate, subtle) development".

Yet, the Mepa board did not follow the NHAC's advice and decided that the Seabank extension met the "key principles of sustainability". As things stand on the sustainability scales, it is often the environment that loses out.

The idea of "sustainable development" has just been included in the portfolio of Parliamentary Secretary Mario de Marco. At this point it can only be called an idea because, so far, there has been nothing sustainable about development in Malta from the environmental point of view. The environment is in shambles.

Dr de Marco is a good listener, which is an essential attribute for someone who will constantly face the conflicting demands of different stakeholders arguing over planning and the environment. The word "sustainability" is now held up as the guiding light in this confusion. In reality, it can mean very different things, depending on one's priorities.

The phrase will never be of any real use to our environment unless clear guidelines are set. We need an environmental strategy on a national scale, outlining guiding principles for development and all the other environmental concerns. Tourism needs must also be treated holistically, taking the environment into account, in a strategy that avoids a piecemeal approach. For example, such a strategy might do well to consider whether massive seven-storey package holiday complexes should be situated adjacent to areas that have long been promoting quiet nature parks and bird reserves. Apart from their obvious ecological importance, nature parks can also be viewed as part of the tourism product.

We all know that Malta's land is limited and that everyone is bound to make compromises. It is not easy to find the ideal spot for developments such as waste and storage facilities or wind farms. But without an overall strategy on where the country aims to be in five or 10 years, we will be faced with relatively short-sighted planning decisions.

Our Local Plans have flaws, the planning guidance is inconsistent and partly outdated and the Structure Plan is in urgent need of revision. It is no wonder that Mepa faces real difficulties when making decisions. The report drawn up by the Commission for Sustainable Development has long been on the shelf and the committee is disbanded.

Another tough challenge has been entrusted to Dr de Marco and our fingers are crossed in hope that some progress may finally be made. It is welcome news that he has committed himself to drawing up a national policy and strategy for the environment and we hope this will happen as quickly as possible.

Sustainable development touches on everything. Today, this phrase is waved about like a mantra at the heart of decision-making. It is the country's future. However, for everyone to pull the same rope and to balance all those conflicting interests, we need a shared understanding of where our environment should be heading, and how we plan to get there.

Dr Bianchi is vice-president of Din l-Art Ħelwa.

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