Lack of progress on the new Public Domain Act is simply down to “teething problems”, Environment Minister José Herrera said in response to criticism that the environmental protection law had been left on paper.
“If there was no political will, we would not have passed the law. I was directly involved in drafting this legislation and I can assure everyone that there was consensus in Cabinet,” Dr Herrera told the Times of Malta.
“However, we do not want to create a law that could stir up economic disruption or create panic among landowners.”
Introduced in 2016, the law is intended to add extra levels of protection to sites of environmental or cultural significance, allowing them to be designated as public domain and obliging the government to preserve them for future generations. However, the first list of sites nominated for public domain status in 2017 remains on the drawing board, and the legal deadline for fresh nominations the following year passed without the process ever beginning.
Stakeholders, including NGOs who nominated the sites and Opposition MP Jason Azzopardi, who piloted the law, have complained that implementation has stalled and that the government appears to have no will to see the process through.
There was consensus in Cabinet
Asked about the delays, Dr Herrera stressed the law’s importance and admitted his dissatisfaction that it had not been fully implemented, but said he was hopeful the process for the first list of sites could be completed “in the coming months”.
The delays, he said, came about after the parliamentary environment committee had received legal advice to clarify ownership issues within the nominated sites to ensure that no individual rights were affected.
“The law does have provisions to protect private owners, so we could have just forged ahead, but it was felt that for consistency’s sake and to prevent confusion, it would be better to determine which areas are private and which are not, and this has taken some time,” he said.
Dr Herrera was speaking at the launch of a new environmental initiative in Wied Għomor, San Ġwann, which the minister said he wishes to nominate for public domain status but which has not yet been formally considered because of the legal delays.
The new initiative will see more than 100 kilometres of valley around Malta and Gozo surveyed to gather new data on water systems, ecology and land-use, with the eventual aim of developing a master plan for their conservation and management.
The ambitious project is a joint initiative by Ambjent Malta and the Energy and Water Agency, funded by the EU’s Life programme, and is expected to take around a year, gathering information and filling in data gaps on 11 different catchment areas.
Dr Herrera said his ministry had already set up a taskforce to clean and rehabilitate valley systems, and that the new studies would help to guide further conservation efforts by providing detailed scientific data on the valleys’ ecological make-up and development pressures.
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