The refusal by the Malta Environment and Planning Authority’s board last week of the proposed extension to St Augustine’s school at Pietà is a decision that makes sense.
The Mepa board was correct in refusing the application on planning grounds even though there are valid educational reasons that justify the need for more space in the school. The proposal is not compatible with the residential area in which the school and the proposed extension are located. Considering an alternative site would be appropriate.
The application considered by Mepa was to add a primary school to the secondary school already existing on site. The extension was to have six floors, four of which above road level. The proposed development was to be constructed in what is now a garden area that serves as the neighbourhood’s lungs.
As stated by the Planning Directorate, the proposal for the extension, if approved, would have been a case of overdevelopment of the site.
The Church school authorities need to delve deeper in order to plan the educational services they provide after taking into consideration all the impacts of their proposals. Ignoring the impacts on the residents is not an option.
A school, irrespective of its catchment area, should be an integral part of the community where it is located. Ideally, it should be possible for its facilities to be utilised by the community after school hours. It, hence, follows that the manner in which schools are constructed and their relation to the community should be such that a mutually beneficial relationship between the school and the other local institutions can be nurtured.
It seems that this aspect has not been given much thought at St Augustine’s. The school seems to be detached from the community where it is sited. As a consequence, the development can also be viewed as a reduction in the quality of life of the community.
The Church school authorities cannot view St Augustine’s school on its own as an isolated case.
The expansion of the Minor Seminary at Tal-Virtù, for example, was carried out in contravention of the provisions of the Local Plan as detailed by the Mepa audit officer after carrying out a thorough investigation.
The Mepa audit officer had then pointed out that no analysis of traffic impacts had been carried out. He also noted that, with a rapidly declining birth rate, the construction of new schools, except as a replacement for existing inadequate buildings, can hardly be justified anywhere.
The issues to consider are various.
The impacts on third parties need to be given their due weight. Residents close to existing schools like St Augustine’s are already impacted by excessive traffic, even if this is for a limited time in the morning and early afternoon. This impact would increase 100 per cent if the proposed extension were approved, making matters considerably worse.
In addition, the use of facilities after hours when schools are insensitively located in residential areas will impact negatively the community in the area.
Increasing the height of existing buildings or constructing buildings higher than the existing residential surroundings will lead to shadowing of the low-lying residential property. Consequently, as a result of reducing the incidence of direct sunlight on existing residential property, one would be precluded from using equipment utilising solar energy to heat water or to generate electricity. This would signify increased electricity bills for the residents.
The proposed extension for St Augustine’s school at Pietà ignored all these issues.
If the Church schools, as a result of an increased demand, desire to expand it is pretty obvious that the resulting influx of students in these schools would signify a corresponding reduction in the population of state schools. Coupled with the reduction in birth rates, this would mean that there will be substantial empty space in some of the existing state primary schools in years to come.
This could indicate that, rather than developing extensions incompatible with existing residential areas or, worse, developing virgin land, a possible solution to the expansion requirements of schools such as St Augustine in Pietà would be to enter into an agreement with the state to ensure better utilisation of the buildings used as state primary/secondary schools where this is possible. If we agree that more than enough land has been developed in Malta, the redevelopment of some of these sites could be an option worth considering as an alternative to the development of virgin sites and/or the overdevelopment of other sites.
There are valid educational reasons which justify the increase in space that schools such as St Augustine’s are requesting. However, the right of Church schools to provide an education, separate and distinct from that provided by the state, does not, in any way, mean that the rights of residents should be ignored.
Fortunately, it is possible to look elsewhere. Better utilisation of sites already committed to educational use could solve the issue reasonably for all concerned: the schools, the students and the residents.
Published in The Times, February 11, 2012