Much has been written and said in recent months and years about our planning system. Heritage and environmental NGOs consistently lament the erosion of our identity through the destruction of our built and environmental heritage. Developers defend their right to sustain their livelihoods and that of the thousands in their employ, pointing to the sizeable contribution they make to Malta’s national GDP. Members of the public complain about the lack of open spaces, traffic, pollution and other matters directly impinging on their quality of life.

Meanwhile, successive governments have been unable, or unwilling, to address the general dissatisfaction with our urban and natural environment, allowing it to degenerate further.

Is it really impossible to bridge the divide? Is there truly nothing that can be done to synthesise these seemingly disparate interests? Is unbridled development our only hope for economic growth? Is our planning system so broken that it cannot provide widely accepted solutions?

Before answering any of these questions, I believe it is essential to understand the purpose of planning and how it works, or should work.

Urban planning is one of the primary functions of government. It emerged from the need to curb devastating cholera outbreaks in cities across the British Empire at the height of the 19th century industrial revolution caused by rapid environmental degradation. Indeed, some of the legislative tools employed by the British government in this respect are part of Malta’s colonial heritage, and still feature in our statute books to this very day in the form of the sanitary regulations, now archaic and obsolete.

Governments across the world in the 19th century understood that to prevent environmental degradation in urban centres and protect public health, it was no longer tenable to allow industrialists a free rein to build their polluting factories where and how they pleased, nor to allow developers to put substandard housing on the market. The appalling conditions in which people lived during the Industrial period preceding town planning have been heart-wrenchingly described by Charles Dickens in his literary masterpieces.

Town and country planning rapidly became a central function of government. Over time the purpose of planning expanded beyond that of protecting public health to the much wider remit of protecting the public good. Indeed, planning is a government instrument by which the collective interest is safeguarded and promoted over that of the individual. In this respect, it is considered a socialist programme of government, very much like public healthcare and education, but unlike the latter two, universally adopted in capitalist, liberal and communist regimes alike.

With planning came development control. The two terms are sadly used interchangeably in Malta but they signify two very distinct processes, albeit closely interrelated. The basis of planning systems across the world is that development rights are de facto nationalised. While ownership of land and property is recognised as a fundamental human right, development is not a right vested in any individual. Owners must request permission from the State before carrying out development. The administrative process of receiving, reviewing and deciding upon development permit applications is known as development control.

The purpose of development control is that of ensuring that individual development permits are only released if they conform to the development plans for the country or urban area, and therefore promote the public-good agenda embodied in the development plans themselves. The development control processes also ensure that human, capital and environmental resources are utilised more efficiently through the coordination of the efforts made by the private and public sectors in the development of the country.

The time has come for all stakeholders to sit together around a table and come up with a common vision for this country

All of us perform planning in our daily lives – whether it is booking a holiday, making a career choice, making an investment decision, having a child. Planning requires three key steps: the first is to identify a perceived current or future need; the second is to establish the most desired outcome; the third is to devise a strategy on how to move from the current situation of need to the achievement of the desired outcome in the future.

Urban planning is no different. It starts with the identification of a perceived development need (national or local); the establishment of medium- to long-term economic, environmental and social objectives; and a strategy of how to transition from the present to the future efficiently and effectively.

Contemporary urban plans, known as spatial plans, synthesise and translate long-term development goals of various sectors of government, such as housing, manufacturing and service industries, healthcare, transport, education, leisure and recreation, infrastructure, culture, tourism and many others, into an urban plan, identifying where and how the development objectives are to be achieved, while also outlining an implementation strategy.

The only time such an exercise was carried out in Malta in the past 40 years was in 1990 with the Structure Plan. Sadly it was undermined by two epic blights in our country’s planning history that preceded and followed it: the 1988 Temporary Provision Schemes (TPS) and the 2006 Local Plans, the tragic consequences of which we are still enduring today. Indeed, virtually all development control decisions taken today are influenced by these two reckless planning instruments and are the main causes of controversy in development permit decisions made by the Planning Authority.

Twenty-three years after the Structure Plan was adopted, the government brought into force the Strategic Plan for the Environment and Development (SPED). Despite its name, it is a document devoid of any strategy or plans. The SPED is merely a list of bland, generic objectives, bereft of any data, analysis or forecasts about our country’s future, and in which neither the government nor the Planning Authority make any mention of concrete medium- to long-term development objectives for the country.

Alarmingly, there appears to be no intention to review the SPED which is due to expire in 2020. When asked by current KTP president Simone Vella Lenicker during the European Commission’s Country Report meeting of 2018 about this, Finance Minister Edward Scicluna responded: “We’ll muddle through”, indicating that urban planning is not a priority. More recently, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat stated at the last MDA annual general meeting that in his view “an ideal system would be for the government to not have anything to do with these things”.

The problem with these statements is that planning is the central function of government. Democratic governments are formed to promote the interests of the societies that elect them over those of the individual. Without government, there would be anarchy and chaos. There is little point discussing tunnel links to Gozo, underground rail, road-widening schemes, high-rises or trading air rights, as the MDA recently proposed, if there is no overarching development plan underpinning and coordinating the large- and small-scale developments carried out by the private and public sectors. When governments abdicate from planning, they are abdicating from governing.

Dr Muscat has repeatedly stated publicly that his vision for Malta is to turn it into Singapore or Dubai. One may agree or disagree with this vision but it is an irrefutable fact that the success of Singapore and Dubai is based on their strong planning systems. It would be inconceivable for these powerful city-states to “muddle through” the transformation of their urban environment.

The time has come for all stakeholders to sit together around a table, let go of their prejudices towards each other, leave behind their narrow interests and come up with a common vision for this country. A country we all profess to love, and yet so frequently betray. Our national focus should now turn to undoing the mess we have collectively made of our country since 1988.

I strongly believe the Kamra tal-Periti is in a privileged position to mediate between the MDA and the environmental and heritage NGOs to bring about a meaningful and radical transformation of our urban landscape for the better – a transformation that will meet all our future development needs sustainably.

Andre Pizzuto is vice president of the Chamber of Architects and Civil Engineers.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece