Din l-Art Ħelwa considers the process by which the Planning Authority has chosen to embark on the review of the 2014 Rural Policy Design Guidance as fundamentally flawed. The way rural areas are handled is a matter of great importance, says the organisation, and also of great difficulty in a country such as Malta.
To expect that a three-week public “consultation” process could contribute to any valid planning policies is either naïve or simply intended for the authority to go through the motions of “consultation”. This concern is reinforced by the fact that the minister has, at the same time, commissioned a lawyer, who does not have any planning or environmental credentials, to draft a new or amended document, even while the public “consultation” is going on.
Din l-Art Ħelwa expects that a proper consultation process ought to have been preceded by considerable preparatory work by the Planning Authority. This should have included the preparation of detailed studies on the current landscape issues, the preparation of draft visions for the different types of rural areas, because the areas outside the zones earmarked for development do not all have the same characteristics.
The publication of such studies could then form the basis of public discussion workshops, where the different options could be explored, not least with the local communities. The organisation has sent in another detailed submission to the Planning Authority reflecting its concerns.
Din l-Art Ħelwa is not surprised that the 2014 Rural Policy Design Guidance has failed. This is not because things in 2014 were significantly different from 2019. The 2014 document was effectively conceived as a way of facilitating development in rural areas. In fact, its Paragraph 0.2 specifically states that the “spirit of the document is to allow whoever genuinely needs to upgrade or redevelop an existing building or to construct a new one outside development zone”.
In 2013, Din l-Art Ħelwa had submitted its strong reservations about the proposed draft document. It was disappointing that not one of its detailed observations were taken into account in the final document. Din l-Art Ħelwa has, unfortunately, been proved right. It is now important that Malta does not repeat the same mistakes. A successful rural policy should be built around the primary objective of protecting our countryside and its biodiversity, our agriculture, and especially our landscape. This means that broad design guidance policies that apply everywhere cannot work. Site specific policies are needed.
The areas outside development zones must be studied, zone by zone, appropriately mapped, and a landscape plan or strategy prepared for each of them. The idea that ODZ areas are areas for which there is no “need for planning” effectively underpinned the Rural Policy document of 2014. In the absence of local plans for these areas, the rural policy design guidelines were proposed, which could thus direct intended development.
In practice, this concept gradually morphed into the idea that ODZ is simply land kept in reserve for future development. This is a fundamentally wrong approach.
At the same time, it is obvious that some activities, beyond the purely agricultural, may need to be accommodated outside the boundaries of the areas already designated for development. Nevertheless, one must start with a presumption against any development. Any proposals for development will need to unequivocally demonstrate:
The absolute necessity of the proposed activity, for the common good, and the impossibility of accommodating such an activity within the zones already defined for development;
that the impact on landscape is minimised and mitigated.
A successful rural policy must truly embrace sustainability principles, meaning that the primary concern has to be the consideration of our legacy for future generations. The primary consideration must always be the impact of any proposed development on the landscape. Landscape planning is a primary tool for developing a rural policy on sustainable principles.
Malta and Gozo need landscape plans for its countryside.
Alex Torpiano is the executive president of Din l-Art Ħelwa.