Facing a spate of planning applications to open more fuel stations amid wide public concern, the Minister for the Environment ordered a review of the planning authority’s controversial 2015 fuel stations policy to address “the burden such developments are posing on important agricultural or ecological land”.

Following months of consultation, the Planning Authority has now published a new policy framework for fuel stations for public consultation.

The proposed policy will guide the future evaluation of planning applications related only to the relocation of existing facilities, which are adversely affecting urban areas.

The revised policy mistakenly continues to allow the controversial relocation of petrol stations from urban cores to areas outside the development zone. But it closes the door entirely to new ODZ proposals for such facilities by allowing only for “relocation”. It reduces the size of petrol stations starkly from today’s maximum of 3,000 to 1,000 square metres and, most importantly, prohibits their relocation to all agricultural land without distinction. The previous policy restricted this to “good quality [agricultural] land” only.

The most crucial aspect of the new policy is that it will be applicable to all pending applications, of which there are a number. 

Most were submitted under the existing, more permissive policy, but fall foul of the new proposed policy’s restrictions on size and siting.

The worrying aspect is that the new policy must still go through several more stages, following the end of the consultation period on June 14 before it is fully implemented. The fear is that by the time the new policy is introduced the government may choose to approve current applications under the existing policy despite an analysis of all pending applications showing nearly all would breach the conditions being proposed.

This would be wrong on both moral and practical grounds. The new draft policy has implicitly conceded that the 2015 restrictions were inadequate and harmful. Many of the pending applications propose development on agricultural land, which the new policy rightly defines more broadly as any agricultural land to protect this precious, diminishing national resource.

Moreover, the new policy has exposed the need for greater safeguards. If it was right to introduce these – as the drafters of the new policy clearly advocate – it would be morally reprehensible to slip pending applications through the back door on the basis that the revised policy is not yet in place. All decisions on pending applications for fuel stations should be halted until the new policy, as drafted, is implemented.

The 2015 policy was meant to protect agricultural land and to prioritise industrial areas but it has led to abuse in the approval of many recent controversial applications by placing fuel stations on virgin land. The new policy rightly aims to stop this abuse.

A start with better land-use planning can be made by reining back the building of any more fuel stations. 

The proliferation of fuel stations in both Malta and Gozo must be curbed. Running a fuel station can be good business for those applying for a permission to build one but it comes at huge cost to the environment and quality of life of the citizens of this country in lost land and ruined amenity. The proposed revised fuel stations policy is a good, if imperfect, step in this direction.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial


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