Effective planning for the built environment in Malta is a formidable task. The islands are small with limited natural resources, so boosting infrastructural capacities and meeting sectorial demands are no easy feat. Perit Joseph Scalpello offers a guide to spatial planning in Malta. 

When navigating a policy landscape of competing interests, plans are created in the hope of achieving national goals. In reality, though, strategy is often a lot more about planning for obstacles and infusing policies with adaptability than one may first assume. This opens up a plan’s success beyond reaching an end goal and towards securing longevity.

Perit Joseph Scalpello, assistant director at Planning Authority’s Policy Directorate, emphasises the importance of adaptability and responsiveness in successful urban planning. 

“Success is a very individual phenomenon that is not always measured in the same way, but which tends to elicit personal value judgements,” Perit Scalpello explains. “Measuring success is a very subjective process masquerading as objectivity. Speaking in simple terms, a successful plan is one which sees your objectives come to fruition. But that’s a reductionist explanation of a complicated concept. 

“For example, if the Authority’s solar farm policy promoted large-scale solar installations, is the policy’s success based on an approach of ‘the more solar farms, the better’? If we only measured success in numbers, there could be very negative implications – not least because we operate in an evolving physical, financial, social and political context. Rather than numbers alone, an important gauge of success is how responsive we are to our changing circumstances by adapting parts of the plan.

“In 2006, we created the childcare policy in reaction to the then-popular idea of having government-funded childcare facilities. Considering the significant number of childcare centres that opened, one could say the policy was successful. But context is not static, so the policy can’t just sit still. For example, after 2006, the Social Policy Department issued new standards for childcare and childcare facilities. So, in 2015, we determined a further layer of regulation needed to be woven into the policy’s framework.”

Dynamic planning is fundamental because policy development is continuous. Reviewing a policy, while retaining its primary goals, is a strategic milestone and marker of success. As a public entity, though, the Planning Authority is acutely aware of the balance that must be struck between competing sectorial interests – an overarching objective of any policy action. 

“For successful planning, the process of policymaking is crucial,” Perit Scalpello asserts. “People need to know why a policy is being made, what it is seeking to achieve and what it is reacting to. Community involvement will produce a more successful plan because the policy will ultimately better reflect the interests of most stakeholders. 

“We strive to involve all stakeholders in our policymaking processes, noting their requirements and concerns. For instance, with the solar farms policy, we have to include energy providers, solar farm developers, renewable energy experts, research institutions and NGOs as these know the technical and environmental requirements. They’re vital for our information gathering.” 

After securing community involvement, the resultant policy cannot trigger a one-size-fits-all approach. “Following the solar farms policy, we witnessed a surge in applications for large-scale solar farms,” Perit Scalpello continues, “but we have a strict assessment process. We separated good applications from those of speculative development, leaving only a small number of approved applications.

But development planning and policy are a small part of society as a whole.

“The crux of planning is to accommodate demand without damaging what is important for the country, the public and the individual – including parties who hold a powerful influence over the evolution of national sectors. You may start off with the best of intentions, but then a change leads to the whole policy mechanism needing to be reviewed. For example, when banks started becoming more conservative about issuing loans, they generated a ripple effect that saw the planning system and policy frameworks having to react quickly.”

While an institution can strive for improvement, bringing ideas to life relies on doing the best one can at any given point in time – and context always presents limitations. The Planning Authority toes the line, trying to sift out the short-term positives from long-term negatives. When forecasting, though, the longer the timeframe, the more uncertain things become. 

“For climate change, we talk about 100-year plans with unknown elements that make these plans less detailed and more difficult to realise than shorter-term plans,” he continues. “Fundamentally, a plan’s measure of success hinges on not accommodating the interests of one sector alone. 

“To give you an example, a boost in tourism might put too much pressure on infrastructure and force increased investment in energy generation and transport. With urban planning, we need to remain mindful that our carrying capacity is not infinite, and there are concrete, knock-on effects and limitations when translating an idea into reality. But it’s a dynamic system, and we work with milestones that motivate us to review and improve.” 

For the Authority, 2020 represents just such a milestone in their strategic planning. In 2015, the Authority’s structural plan was revised and a strategic vision for the next 20 years was rolled out. This year, the strategy is up for review, triggering questions about how well the plan is holding up five years on. In his concluding remarks, Perit Scalpello explains that now is the time to see how the Authority’s 2015 vision has moved Malta’s national objectives forward.

“The key question is, how has life changed since 2015? It’s a rolling process of reviewing the validity of our vision given the ticking of time. If we find that we now have new requirements, we’ll adapt our journey because this is critical to the success of our strategic plan. A case in point would be the tourism industry. From the ‘traditional’, resort-style tourist, we’re now living in the sharing economy and experiencing an expansion of visitors opting for Airbnb-style accommodation. As we review, we’ll ask what the implications of this are and how we are we going to react.

“This is where real success lies – in asking questions, seeking stakeholder involvement, understanding our evolving context, and proactively adapting our policy frameworks in response. If we don’t like where a trend is heading, this is how we can intervene to change it. But if we do like the trend, this is also when we determine the next steps in our planning future.”

For more information visit www.pa.org.mt.

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