It was once hailed as a ‘revolutionary’ environmental law, but less than three years on, the Public Domain Act appears to have ground to a halt, with legal deadlines ignored and no sites having benefitted from its protection.
Introduced in 2016, the law allows sites to be nominated for public domain status, imposing a positive obligation on the government to preserve them for future generations.
It sets a deadline of September 15 every year for the Lands Minister to present Parliament with a list of nominated sites, to be compiled by the Planning Authority after a public consultation process.
The 2017 report included 24 nominated sites. But the process has been bogged down by a Lands Authority investigation into ownership rights, and none of the sites have yet been granted protection.
The 2018 process, meanwhile, never took place and no report was submitted by the September 15 deadline. Stakeholders have since expressed concern over whether the 2019 process will begin in time for the next deadline.
Opposition MP Jason Azzopardi, who piloted the law through Parliament as a private member’s bill, told The Sunday Times of Malta that despite unanimous cross-party support for the law’s introduction, there now appeared to be no political will to see the process through.
It is useless drafting laws if there is no political will
“We have been given all sorts of excuses in the parliamentary Environment Committee. I cannot fathom what could be keeping the authority from the simple task of suggesting sites that can be designated as public domain,” he said. “It is useless drafting laws if there is no political will.”
Flimkien Għal Ambjent Aħjar environment officer Tara Cassar, whose organisation nominated nearly half the sites in the first report, said the NGO’s requests for updates on the process were being stonewalled by the authorities.
“The whole process is stalled, but there was never any change in legislation to justify it,” she said. “The law is still there, so we are bound to act on it and take a decision on the proposals that have been made so far. Instead the entire process appears to have stopped.”
A spokeswoman for Infrastructure Minister Ian Borg, who is responsible for both the Planning Authority and the Lands Authority, did not answer specific questions on when the process would be concluded or why last year’s deadline had been missed.
The spokeswoman said only that the first report had been submitted to Parliament in 2017 and that discussions had been held within the parliamentary environment committee.
An addendum to the 2017 report, the spokeswoman added, was tabled late last year. This addendum clarifies the ownership of the nominated sites and includes the Planning Authority’s executive council’s recommendations on the nominations.
The Environment Ministry did not respond to any questions.
In a statement yesterday on development plans for one of the nominated public domain sites at Manoel Island, the Democratic Party (PD) said the law had been “intentionally side-lined and thrown in the abyss”.
What is the Public Domain Act?
The law aims to safeguard environmentally or culturally significant sites against unsustainable development, excessive commercialisation and environmental destruction.
The State cannot freely negotiate public domain sites with third parties, as it can with public land, but must ensure the preservation of public rights for future generations. Private property rights are not affected.
Under the law, the foreshore is automatically categorised as public domain while sites such as valleys, squares, woods, forts, nature reserves and cultural artefacts, can be proposed for listing.
In 2017, sites nominated for public domain status included Comino, the Valletta coastline, Ħondoq ir-Rummien, parts of Ta’ Ċenċ, the coast between Ġnejna and Mtaħleb, the Floriana pinetum, Manoel Island, Wied Garnaw, the Wied iż-Żurrieq to Għar Lapsi shore and others.
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