Last updated at 9pm with announcement by the environment minister calling off all PA meetings.
All Planning Authority meetings have been cancelled pending the drawing up of a legal framework to regulate such meetings in view of current circumstances, the minister for planning and the environment, Aaron Farrugia, announced on Monday evening.
The announcement followed a day of criticism of the PA after it said that a public board meeting scheduled for this Thursday would go ahead.
The board was due to decide on four planning applications, despite the authority having said earlier this month that all such meetings were suspended in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.
The PA also said that public hearings for planning commission meetings would resume while taking all necessary precautions to safeguard public health, in line with the directives issued by the authorities.
Only cases where no issues were raised during the planning processing of the application and for which there were no registered objectors will be heard.
For such cases, the Commission would be contacting the applicant/architect and offer them the option of participating in the public meeting through video conferencing or in person.
If the applicant opts to attend the hearing, only the architect will be allowed into the room and will have to respect social distancing regulations. If, for any reason, an applicant declines to attend the public hearing or communicate with the commission via video conferencing, then the application will be deferred to a later date.
The PA said that over the past years it had invested heavily in ICT technology which enabled it to continue to render its customers an efficient and complete service, especially in such challenging times. It noted that within days, it had shifted its employees to work remotely, allowing the processing of planning applications to continue uninterrupted.
Board meeting notice fuels confusion and outrage
On March 12, the authority issued a notice saying that as from March 16, all scheduled executive council, planning board and planning commission meetings had been suspended until further notice.
Though this directive is still in force, an advert in Monday’s daily papers left people baffled as it gave notice that a public meeting of the planning board was scheduled for Thursday at its offices in Floriana.
These meetings are held for major development applications only.
In this case, the advert listed four applications, of which two are for sanctioning illegal excavation of basements on a Qawra site, which is earmarked for the construction of garages, shops and apartments. This project is being piloted by J Portelli Projects, who last year was involved in a controversy over a separate development in Qala.
The third application concerns the sanctioning of the demolition of a building in Ta’ Xbiex and the construction of a 14-storey business tower, as part of a project by Michael Stivala.
The fourth application is for the construction of an 18-storey residential block as part of the MIDI project in Tigné.
Cassola calls on Ombudsman to stop the meeting
Outraged by the PA’s decision to hold this meeting, former Alternattiva Demokratika chairperson Arnold Cassola on Monday wrote to the Environment Ombudsman Alan Saliba.
Cassola accused the PA of acting irresponsibly, saying it was exposing board members and all those who would be attending for the meeting to the risk of contracting the COVID-19.
He said that such a meeting was also illegal as was in breach of a legal notice due to be published in the coming hours, which banned all sort of public meetings as from today.
Consequently, he called on the Ombudsman to take action and prevent the meeting from taking place.
“It is disgusting how this board is ready to compromise people’s lives to accommodate developers who ruined the country and people’s quality of life,” he said.
The Ombudsman later wrote to the chairperson of the Planning Authority expressing his surprise and disappointment over the PA's plans.
He said he expected the authority to follow its own notices and the official sanctions and not hold any meetings until further notice.
Environment NGO Din l-Art Helwa also slammed the decision, which it said, put people's health at risk.
The decision to go ahead with Thursday's sitting, whilst all other sittings were postponed also put all other applicants whose development requests had been put on hold at an unfair disadvantage.
"On what grounds have the cases being heard on Thursday been deemed to be of such importance that they warrant preferential treatment above all other users of the Planning Authority's services?" the NGO asked.
"Surely approving development permits pertaining to hotels and high-rise blocks (neither of which include provisions for medical services, laboratories or health centres) cannot be deemed an essential activity that would warrant the Planning Authority's decision to proceed with these public hearings, without the public."
In a statement late on Monday, minister Aaron Farrugia said he had noted the comments made following the PA's decision and he had been in contact with the chair of the authority, the Chamber of Architects, the superintendent of public health and the attorney general in order to find a satisfactory solution.
Therefore all meetings by the PA were being cancelled until a regulatory framework for the current circumstances was in place.
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