A landmark decision against the partial de-scheduling of the Għar il-Kbir buffer zone has just been made. The Environment and Planning Review Tribunal overturned a 2015 Planning Authority decision to remove the scheduling of an area of land in the limits of the locality on the basis that the Siġġiewi local council had not been properly consulted.
The area, targeted by developers for the extension of a nearby quarry, formed part of a scheduled area of archaeological importance known as Ix-Xagħra il-Kbir, a Class A site lying about two miles south of Rabat near Clapham Junction. Caves there, once Malta’s largest troglodytic hamlet, were occupied over many centuries until 1836 when their inhabitants were moved to Siġġiewi as the caves were considered insanitary.
Siġġiewi council’s architect, Carmel Caccopardo, and Flimkien Għal Ambjent Aħjar, said that tribunal’s decision would necessitate a change in the law to ensure no planning watchdog would make decisions behind closed doors.
Former Siġġiewi mayor Karol Aquilina, now a member of Parliament, rightly emphasised that the de-scheduling process should not remain secret and the Planning Authority had an obligation to consult with the local councils.
In its decision, the appeals tribunal ruled that, although the law did not explicitly provide for public consultation on a de-scheduling request, the Planning Authority nevertheless had an obligation to inform the public because scheduled sites were publicly listed and were, therefore, matters in the public domain.
Moreover, the tribunal observed that the Planning Authority had been in constant contact with the applicant and should, therefore, have extended the consultation to any others having an interest in the case. In mitigation, the Planning Authority contended that the planning concerns highlighted by the council and FAA had been considered throughout the process and the decision to de-schedule the land had been guided by scientific studies. It claimed that, by the time the land had been scheduled in 1996, “it had already been disturbed by mineral excavations and certain natural features had been destroyed irreversibly”.
There are two salient lessons to be drawn from this decision. The first concerns transparency and accountability. Promoting transparency, accountability and openness are fundamental to good governance. Successive Maltese administrations have been found wanting on this score. Their lack of transparency almost invariably leads to poor decision-making and accusations of maladministration if not corruption.
The second follows directly from the first. There is a marked tendency for central government authorities to seek to ignore councils in decision-making processes. This, as this case has demonstrated, is especially so where important environmental and development planning decisions are concerned. The result, again, is poor decision-making.
It must be hoped a more efficient and open process of consideration will lead to the two appeals raised by the developer – one of which is seeking the extension of the de-scheduled area and the other challenging the refusal of the original development application – to be rejected.
Having the central government decide on its own on such matters is not only wrong but also extremely short-sighted. Councils have the pulse of the people they serve. They know exactly how constituents will react to any decision made by the government. They have a fund of local knowledge and experience which bodies like the PA ignore at their peril.
This is a Times of Malta print editorial
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