More than 46,000 square metres of rural land, an area more than five times the size of the Granaries in Floriana, may be sacrificed in favour of petrol stations. Here is the whole picture.

When the controversial Fuel Service Stations Policy was approved in 2015, environmental groups warned of its potential to increase urban sprawl and immediately suggested it be revised.

Three years down the line, and with the called-for revision finally under way, its impact has become amply clear.

Since its introduction, 14 different development applications (see graphic in pdf link) have been submitted or approved for ODZ land to be taken up with new fuel stations, either new or relocated from urban areas.

Between them, these applications could commit some 46,500 square metres of rural land to development – an area more than five times the size of the Floriana Granaries.

These applications range in size from 1,500 to 5,000 square metres each and come with ancillary facilities such as auto shops and cafés, deemed necessary to make the projects economically viable.

Three have been approved already, and the rest are under consideration or being screened by the PA.

One application, in Mqabba, is in a built-up storage area, and another in Kirkop is for a field sandwiched between an industrial zone and the airport runway, but the others mostly target virgin, often agricultural land in rural areas.

In Attard and Burmarrad, the proposed stations are less than 500 metres away from existing ones. In Mġarr, two stations are proposed 1.5 kilometres apart.

The applications are among the dozens more submitted for upgrades to existing facilities or for new fuel stations inside development zones.

Another four ODZ proposals are known to have been submitted but have not yet been designated an application number, which could indicate they are at a very early stage of the process.

Amid this mushrooming, official figures have so far not presented the full picture.

When PA executive chairman Johann Buttigieg appeared in front of the Parliament Environment Committee last week as it discussed the policy review, he said just eight applications under the policy – both ODZ and not – had been submitted, of which three were approved.

But this figure omits applications submitted before 2013 that were approved after the policy was introduced, as well as those still under screening, which between them constitute a majority of applications.

A PA spokesman said: “The Development Planning Act considers and therefore publishes only those planning applications that get validated. An application which is not yet validated is still at a preliminary stage whereby the basic requirements for it to be considered further are still missing.”

Due to landscaping, the land take-up can significantly surpass the threshold of 3,000 square metres

The Environment and Resources Authority (ERA), which has been tasked with reviewing the Fuel Stations Policy and presenting recommendations, has been vociferous in its objections to many of the projects approved so far, though its objections have most often been overruled.

It said in a recent case that allowing such projects in ODZ areas would “set a precedent for the development of similar proposals within the rural area” and has raised concerns over the take-up of agricultural land and the cumulative impact on the environment.

The controversial policy – which allows stations to relocate from urban areas to ODZ areas, as well as setting parameters for the development of new facilities – is meant to protect agricultural land and prioritise industrial zones and already committed sites such as open storage areas.

Photo: Chris Sant FournierPhoto: Chris Sant Fournier

Recent decisions, however, have shown the gaps in these restrictions.

A new fuel station was approved in Burmarrad just 450 metres away from the nearest similar facility – below the minimum of 500 metres set by the policy – because the two could not be accessed through the same carriageway.

In the case of a relocated station in Marsascala, the ERA objected to the development of 1,500 square metres of agricultural land, albeit abandoned, but the policy only rules out certified “good quality” agricultural land.

In January, the PA approved a station in Magħtab, also relocated, which had been rejected in 2016 before a court ordered a reconsideration.

The board cited compliance with the Fuel Stations Policy to justify a reversal, having previously cited other policy provisions on preserving rural environments as grounds to refuse it.

Moreover, the PA considers the maximum footprint of 3,000 square metres set by the policy not to include landscaping, meaning the total land take-up can significantly surpass this threshold.

And while the main fears are environmental, with 78 fuel stations already in Malta and Gozo, there are also questions about the need for more.

Petrol and diesel vehicles are being phased out – the government has announced that Malta will follow the lead of other countries in setting a cut-off date for the sale of new vehicles – so the drive for more stations seems out of touch with the oncoming shift.

“As a result of going electric, the number of fuel service stations required will at some point in the future be next to nil,” Alternattiva Demokratika chairman Carmel Cacopardo wrote last week.

“So why build more of them? Why encourage investment in something that is not needed? It would be much better to channel investment into resolving problems instead of adding to them.”

This has raised concerns that the glut of new fuel stations may become a simple pretext for further development. In November, the Democratic Party said the policy was encouraging speculators to buy cheap agricultural land and turn it into a “rural commercial goldmine”.

Announcing last month that the policy would be reviewed, the Environment Ministry said that its goal “of placing human safety first through the relocation of fuel stations away from residential areas” remained valid.

It added, however, that “the current situation needs to be put into perspective and this position is to be readdressed”.

The ERA will present its recommendations to the PA executive council next month. It will then be seen whether the authority can strike a much-needed balance.