The Chamber of Architects (Kamra tal-Periti) has lambasted the Planning Authority (PA) over a contentious platform for catering in the middle of Valletta’s Merchant Street, pointing to the “failure of the planning system” when projects are carried out at the expense of public interest.

Leaving the urban and natural environment open to unplanned, albeit approved, development – in the manner of metal structure for tables, chairs and umbrellas in the UNESCO World Heritage Site – “cannot possibly ever result in the public interest being safeguarded over individual interest”, KTP president Andre Pizzuto insisted.

The use of public space for commercial interests should be planned and designed in detail and well in advance by the PA, he said.

“It should not be incrementally shaped through piecemeal development applications by private individuals, companies, or government agencies, without having visibility of the final outcome.”

The large metal structures outside the luxury Rosselli Hotel sparked anger among residents, academics and the local council, which is now appealing the PA approval.

It has strongly opposed the outdoor-dining concession, asking PA chairman Martin Saliba to revoke the decision and demanding that the applicant, AX Holdings Ltd, be ordered to dismantle it.

The local council complained that the hotel owners had gone ahead with installing the platform before the process was concluded, stating also that the fast-tracked permit, PA2520/21, was granted without the consent of the Lands Authority.

Pizzuto concurred that Lands Authority clearance must always be sought before the PA grants permits on public land. But the responsible authorities have not clarified the matter.

'Right to develop is a political posture'

Expressing the KTP’s position on the Merchants Street structure and similar projects, Pizzuto said the chamber has “consistently lamented the failure of our planning system”, which he described as flawed.

“Unfortunately, it is based on the completely misguided notion of ‘the right to develop’, which is the antithesis of planning systems everywhere else in the world.

“The ‘right to develop’ is a political posture that is not underpinned in the law anywhere, including Malta,” Pizzuto pointed out.

He said the role of planning was to ensure that the public interest was not only protected, but that it also benefitted from any development that took place.

It is wrong when it comes at the expense of the public interest

“In Malta, on the other hand, we have development control policies that establish parameters of how far private owners, and in some cases government agencies, can push their ambitions to exploit our environment, be it privately or publicly owned, urban or natural, to make money or generate economic activity.”

Pizzuto clarified that making money was not inherently wrong; neither was “loosening the stranglehold” cars have over public space, in favour of pedestrians and outdoor recreation.

This, the president said, was commendable because it enhanced the quality of the towns and villages.

“However, it is wrong when it comes at the expense of the public interest,” he insisted.

The PA’s statement, following the outcry, that no objectors had complained about the Merchants Street application “just goes to show that it is not upholding the public interest by default”.

Pizzuto said it exposed an attitude where it was the private citizen who should fight to protect his or her interests, rather than the state.

“More often than not, the limited resources, both technical and financial, of private citizens places them at a disadvantage in trying to protect their common interests, to the detriment of the public good,” he said.

“We see this in other areas of public policy, including the diabolical mechanism whereby neighbours of construction sites are compelled to appoint their periti to review method statements, because the Building and Construction Authority will not thoroughly vet them before issuing authorisation to start works.”

Claire Bonello, specialised in planning law, had raised similar issues regarding “people and entities expected to be on a 24/7 objection watch just in case the PA wants to evade the law”, pointing out that the only legal remedy available at this point was for someone to file an application for revocation of the platform permit.

The application would cost an “eye-watering” €500 and could be refused by the PA, she had said.

Owners AX Group, the PA and the Valletta Cultural Agency chairman have defended the project, confirming it was being built in accordance with the approved plans and drawings, and that it was just “another demountable structure” like many others in Merchants Street, designated a pedestrian area for al fresco dining since 2008.

Questions have, however, been raised about whether the large metal set-up with tightly bolted umbrellas actually could be demountable on a daily basis.

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