The Malta Environment and Planning Authority is in the process of redefining the basic policies that identify what sort of development will be permissible in outside development zone areas.
One of the objectives being proposed by Mepa to guide the formulation of the new ODZ policies is to “ensure a balance between the protection of the environment and development in ODZ areas” but we can only speculate as to the nature of this ‘balance’. The issue of subjectivity comes up here because ‘balance’ in this case does not mean the same thing to all.
Many would agree that the environment has been suffering at the hands of development for decades and that a better balance would be achieved by banning all ODZ development. Conversely, others would argue that the permitting of buildings in ODZ, such as for agritourism – a recent buzz word – would help redress the balance in favour of development.
No policy is cast in stone and there is always room for improvement but ‘improvement’ is also very subjective, like ‘balance’. What is an improvement for a developer, whose aim is to improve his own personal well-being, may not be an improvement for the public because a development could be damaging the environment, which concerns us all. It is, after all, public property.
Joe Public is a many-headed creature
Joe Public has been asked by Mepa to make the initial proposals for improvement but let us not forget that Joe Public is a many-headed creature and that he will have thrown all sorts of suggestions into the balancing hat.
One type of Joe Public actually likes concrete and would cheerfully applaud it spreading into ODZ. He thrives in anonymous featureless rows of aluminium windows blindly overlooking strips of black tarmac. This Joe doesn’t like trees because they take up useful café table space and the birds that live in them shower droppings on anything that chances to be below, be it tourist, SUV or cappuccino. This type of Joe would propose more apartment blocks, more bars, discos and flashing lights.
Another manifestation of Joe Public is the one who doesn’t really think about much anyway, who wouldn’t notice if somebody were to paint the Valletta bastions lime green. This Joe could come up with something irrational like completely abolishing ODZ regulations to stimulate the economy and he would be quite serious about it too.
When all has been said and done, it is Mepa that will evaluate and take on board those suggestions that will have been deemed an improvement. And this is the problem because, quite frankly, going by Mepa’s sad performance in this field, one shudders to think what improvements could be visited on the environment. This is where Mepa needs to exercise good judgement in weighing the proposed improvements.
We have absolutely no doubt that well-intentioned persons inside Mepa do exist who could certainly exercise good judgement in their decisions. On the other hand, one cannot forget Mepa turning a Nelson’s eye at villas in ODZ pristine countryside, at petrol stations at the head of ecologically-important valleys, at the creeping eczema of our concrete jungles, at the demolished heritage buildings and desecrated village cores, the 2006 realigned development zones, the fluid weights and measures and the widespread tree massacres.
The fact is that the whole operation has been tackled back to front. The government should first have completed a new strategic plan, adjusted existing local plans to reflect the new strategy and, finally, submitted it to Joe Public for suggestions/consultations. As things now stand, we are heading towards haphazard piecemeal solutions without an overarching guiding strategy.
A nightmare scenario begins to unfold and it goes like this. Mepa will receive and approve requests for sanctioning of all sorts of illegal developments. We shall see requests for visually intrusive photovoltaic ‘farms’ and for euphemistically named ODZ agritourism projects, which are, in reality, small country hotels. Existing hotels are to be allowed extra floors wherever they may be situated. The construction industry will shift into top gear and we will have more cranes, trucks, traffic, dust, diesel fumes and noise.
We are already seeing the first manifestations of this new deal. Within development zones, demolition continues. Three historic town houses in the Naxxar village core are destined to be pulled down to be replaced by more apartments and commercial outlets. A permit was issued on September 15 for the development of an ODZ plot right next to the 5,000-year-old Ta’ Ħaġrat temples.
Hopefully, this is just a bad dream. Mepa will exercise good judgement after all and spare the beleaguered environment further torture. Failing that, forget about outside development zone because all Malta will become our development zone.
George Camilleri is secretary general of Din l-Art Ħelwa