When the planning authority was set up in the early 1990s, it was the Nationalist Party’s reply to the Labour Party’s excesses in government, in the hope the country would never return to ways of former Labour minister Lorry Sant. The outcome was mediocre at best because it never really worked. The new regulator ‘dared’ to introduce regulation in the building industry and that went against the national vein.
Reform followed reform but the regulator never picked up. Autonomous as it was made to sound, it was a smokescreen more than anything else. Successive governments never managed, or, maybe, wanted, to let go of control. There is too much power in those offices in Floriana; land is so scarce and so much money to be made from it. Yet, there was still hope, hope the regulator will do what is right. Hope never died. Until last week, perhaps.
The Planning Authority met to discuss the umpteenth application for a petrol station outside development zones. The policy allowing such development was to be reviewed but it was not. So non-government organisations turned up: Moviment Graffitti and Kamp Emerġenza Ambjent wanted to protest against what they felt was wrong and they did so colourfully and loudly. The police were called in.
The Planning Authority was supposed to be the last bastion for all those who hoped things could be done right. Their protests may not have been heeded but they were at least listened to or noticed. Not last week. Why the district police had to be supplemented by officers from the rapid intervention unit, trained to deal with sensitive emergency situations remains a moot point. It was only a matter of a handful of people making noise.
The protesters were pulled out, physically, from the Planning Authority offices. It was not a nice scene, but such incidents are never pleasant. The police did their job, though a few may have overreacted.
Not surprising, the Prime Minister disowned the matter. He said he was not impressed by what the police did and, like many times before, he chose to sit on the fence.
He was not the only one left unimpressed. The mood out there is that it was all his own political doing and, ultimately, his responsibility for the miserable state the Planning Authority has been reduced to, where people turn out to protest and get ruffled by the police.
The Planning Authority did not update its policy on petrol stations, as it was supposed to do. And, invariably, the applications keep coming in. The regulator stands there acknowledging, processing and deciding the applications, like it has nothing to do with the system failure it is directly responsible for. And when people turn up to protest, they are shoved outside.
In its chequered history, the Planning Authority sometimes did stand alongside public sentiment, even if that did not go down well with its political overseers.
Lately, it has been reduced to removing protest signs in support of murdered journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, ostensibly because posters on trees pose a traffic hazard. That is not its job.
Its duty is well cut out for it: like stopping the Transport Minister from building roads without a permit. But that does not happen and the police do nothing.
The Planning Authority’s meddling in politics is its own undoing.
This is a Times of Malta print editorial
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