A recent study by three Danish scholars evaluates public participation in urban politics. The study by Marie Leth Meilvang, Hjalmar Bang Carlsen and Anders Blok appears in the European Journal of Cultural and Political Sociology and it analyses recent shifts in the cultural-political forms of civic participation in formal urban planning in Denmark.
Their study shows how in the past 40 years, civic participation in urban planning has been characterised by tensions regarding decision-making processes. This, in turn has been studied in different ways within a scholarly approach defined as pragmatic sociology.
One way of looking at such tensions is by analysing practices and processes of justification, critique and compromise in decision-making processes. Another approach within the field looks at how public engagement depends on familiarity of the people involved with the sites in question, while a third approach analyses how cities are ordered through measurable objectives and indicators which include and exclude respective practices. In Denmark and various other EU member states, local councils have the final democratic responsibility for planning, and their respective authorities coordinate formal and informal participation procedures, involving ordinary citizens, NGOs, interest groups and others.
Their respective feedback to development proposals is circulated to authorities and thus stimulates a ‘conversation’, where critique and justifications engage with one another.
Such dialogue takes places within interest meetings and workshops, and differences in views and opinions are acknowledged and encouraged as helpful inputs to urban planning.
The decision-making processes on development applications are intensely political, with politicians often acting as middlemen
I found this study very useful to the Maltese context. My experience in local politics and my sociological research have led me to conclude that public consultation is an uneven process in Malta. If Malta was slowly moving towards increased rationality and standardisation following EU accession, the new order is generally lowering down standards.
Indeed, very often, development applications are approved, resulting in a win-win situation for applicants and for ruling political interests. The quantity of applications runs roughshod over their quality, resulting in an industrialisation of permits.
Expert advice, including that from internal sources, often comes second to political pressure. No wonder the exodus of experts and the influx of party loyalists in structures such as the Planning Authority.
There are exceptions to this, though, and very often these are characterised by strong opposition from residents, environmental NGOs, local councils, at least one major political party and media coverage.
Hence, Maltese decision-making processes on development applications are intensely political, with politicians often acting as middlemen or entrepreneurs in favour or against such proposals. The urban and rural landscapes provide the raw material for this toing and froing.
Being close to political entrepreneurs can thus be a good investment for both proponents and opponents of specific proposals. Politicians who enjoy the power of incumbency have more resources in their possession, but their power is never unlimited, thus opening windows of opportunity for the opposition.
Development applications will always have political ramifications to an extent, but I believe that it is about time that Malta really takes such processes seriously. Wouldn’t it be better if stakeholder consultation were better structured and if experts’ voices are taken more seriously?
The Danish example I referred to provides some methods which could be considered in Malta. This would however involve subsidiarity, where local councils are given more authority over what they currently have, and where consultation is more organic and dialogical, involving different stakeholders and the mediation by trusted experts.
Some people ask where the EU stands in such matters. By and large, Malta carries out environment impact assessments on large development proposals, thus conforming to basic EU requirements. But it is about time that we look at the quality and not just the quantity of such assessments, and it is also about time to propose that the cumulative impacts of small scale development is given more weighting than what currently is the case.
Thus Malta requires a smaller government and less political interference and a bigger society and expert input in this field. The role of politicians should be to improve and scrutinise policymaking at local, national and European levels rather than assuming the role of middlemen for proponents and opponents.