Simon’s ODZ bluff

Simon Busuttil.Zonqor2

 

20 January is the closing date for the submission of expressions of interest in response to the call by the Privatisation Unit for the setting up of a Motorsports complex in Malta.

During the press conference that launched the call on 29 September, Parliamentary Secretary for Sport Chris Agius emphasised the fact that the choice of location was up to the investors presenting the submissions, even though several sites were proposed in the consultation process leading up to the call for expressions of interest.

However, Sam Collins, writing on 25 April last year on an online motor-racing guide, under the heading Malta eyes Formula 1 with new circuit stated that a “110 hectare parcel of land has been earmarked for the development.”  It is pretty obvious that the as yet unidentified  “110 hectare parcel of land” to be used for this proposed motorsports complex will be situated outside the development zone (ODZ). Each hectare consists of 10,000 square metres, meaning that 110 hectares equals one million, one hundred thousand square metres.

Sam Collins describes the proposal in this manner: “The government documents relating to the circuit’s development point out that part of its purpose would be to attract major international racing series, including Formula 3 and similar classes. The proposed facility would also include facilities for concerts, conferencing and a racing school. A hotel and museum of motoring and transport heritage would also be built on site. Road safety and driver training would play a major part in the facility’s layout, with a dedicated area for these activities. A CIK Kart circuit would also be built alongside the main track.”

The basic question which had to be addressed – but which most obviously has not been addressed so far – is whether Malta can afford to waste this much land. The answer, in my opinion, irrespective of the number of motor-racing car enthusiasts on the island, is clear and unequivocal: Malta cannot waste any more of its limited land.

The sites that have been possibly earmarked are limited in number, as Malta’s size does not present too many options and the impact of the selected site will be substantial, irrespective of its current use.

Development on the  parcel of land selectedcould have a substantial impact on areas of ecological importance that are protected either in terms of local policy or else as a result of EU or international commitments. Knowing that most of the undeveloped land along Malta’s coastline from Bengħajsa right up to Ċirkewwa is protected for ecological purposes, this could be the case, particularly if the identified parcel of land is close to the coast.

The impact could be further increased in view of the possible proximity of the selected parcel of land to residential areas. A specific area, mentioned consistently through the grapevine, would lump these impacts on Malta’s political south, further adding to the disregard for residents’ quality of life in the region accumulated over the years.

There are, therefore, three issues on the basis of which the proposed facility is objectionable: firstly, that Malta is too small for such a development; secondly, that the environmental impact will be substantial and thirdly, that the neighbouring residents’ quality of life, as well as biodiversity and natural resources, will be bartered for short term economic gain.

Depending on the precise eventual location, it may be possible to mitigate and reduce the impact on residents. However, it is most probable that a reduced impact on residents would signify increased impact on natural resources and biodiversity. In my opinion, this signifies that even on the drawing board the project should have been a non-starter.

In recent months we have had the Żonqor “University” debacle. A major sticking point in that case was that the original proposal was to use land situated outside the ODZ and public opinion’s unifying reaction was “No to ODZ development”.

The Parliamentary Opposition, both inside and outside Parliament, took a clear stand against the ODZ Development proposed at Żonqor. Yet in the case of the proposed motor track facility, the Opposition Spokesperson on Sport, David Agius, was invited to be present when the call for expressions of interest was launched. His presence confirms that, notwithstanding Simon Busuttil’s solemn declarations on the sanctity of ODZ land, the proposal for the (ODZ) motor track facility enjoys bipartisan support.

Which means that Simon’s talk on ODZ is just bluff.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 3 January 2016

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The mauling of Dwejra : an environmental crime

 

Some would have formed the opinion that the basic information on the Dwejra debacle is known to all.

Not quite, I would say.

MEPA issued a permit containing The Consent Conditions relative to a number of sites in Malta and Gozo to be used for filming parts of the tele-serial “Game of Thrones”. One of the sites was at Dwejra Gozo.

Two site specific conditions applicable to Dwejra (conditions 23 and 24 of The Consent Conditions) refer to Areas of Ecological Importance and Sites of Scientific Importance. These are terms used by the Structure Plan to classify the protection afforded to areas of conservation (Structure Plan Policies RCO 1, RCO 2 and RCO 3). Given that the Dwejra site is a Special Area of Conservation I searched and noted that in The Consent Conditions there is no reference whatsoever to Special Areas of Conservation rules and policies, regulated in terms of the Habitats Directive of the EU which was transposed into Maltese law through Legal Notice 311 of 2006 (Flora, Fauna and Natural Habitats Protection Regulations 2006).

This leads to the logical conclusion that the consent issued by MEPA for the use of the Dwejra site to film part of the tele-serial “Game of Thrones” was only processed in terms of land use planning considerations. Environmental considerations are completely absent: they were completely ignored. The Consent Conditions being a written proof  of this.

Planning vs Environment

During the national debate as to whether it made sense to have land use planning and environment protection forming part of the same authority the Gonzi-Demarco duo  always insisted that MEPA dealing with both would lead to having a much better protection of the environment. Coordination, it was said, was the name of the game. In practice we are faced with something else: land use planning considerations are ruling the day and environmental considerations are being continuously sidelined. The Dwejra case being a typical example.

 

The Species Data Form

Dwejra was included as a Nature 2000 site and consequently as a Special Area of Conservation by the European Union at the request of the Maltese Government which also supplied the detailed justification as to why the area should be protected. The scientific reasons justifying the selection of the site as a Special Area of Conservation are available on the Species Data Form which MEPA had submitted to the EU on behalf of the Government of Malta some years back. An electronic copy is available at the EU website.

EU LIFE+  financial support

In 2003, given the importance of the protection afforded to the site the EU through its LIFE+ Fund  supported a conservation project for the area headed by Nature Trust Malta then in partnership with MEPA and WWF Italy. The EU forked out €324,000 of the EU taxpayers’ money.

Permissible Activity

Permissible activity in a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) is a very delicate matter. It is regulated primarily by regulations 18 and 19 of Legal Notice 311 of 2006.

Regulation 18 establishes that a permit is necessary for any activity in an SAC. It also determines who needs to be notified.

Regulation 19 goes in detail and establishes the parameters within which MEPA as the Competent Authority can act. When the consent required is not related to the management of the SAC and it is likely to have a significant effect thereon, MEPA or the applicant is to carry out “an appropriate assessment of the implications of the operation or activity on the site in view of the site’s conservation objectives”.

Legitimate question

After having ascertained, through the assessment, that the integrity of the site is not affected MEPA is required to obtain and take into account “the opinion of the general public and representations made”.  This means that the assessment carried out has to be subject to a public consultation.

In view of the above it is legitimate to ask: was an appropriate assessment carried out? And further, when was this appropriate assessment subjected to the scrutiny of the public in order that representations could be made by the public as well as environmental NGOs?

I am not aware as to whether an appropriate assessment was carried out and hence nor am I aware as to its possible conclusions. However if this assessment was carried out I do not recollect that it was subjected to public consultation.  Nor have any of the environmentalists with whom I have discussed the matter any recollection of this public consultation ever taking place.

The public interest

Regulation 19 of Legal Notice 311/2006 further specifies what is to be done if the appropriate assessment results in negative implications for the SAC site. In such cases MEPA as the Competent Authority may only give its consent to the activity “for imperative reasons of overriding public interest …… of a social or economic nature.”  These reasons are defined as relating to human health, public safety, or beneficial consequences of primary importance for the environment or other reasons which in the opinion of the EU Commission are imperative reasons of overriding public interest.   

The consent must be accompanied by “compensatory measures necessary to ensure that the overall coherence of Natura 2000 is protected.”  The EU Commission is furthermore to be informed of these compensatory measures taken by the Competent Authority.

MEPA’s responsibilities

To date the public has been informed in detail as to how the conditions of the permit which MEPA issued to Fire and Blood Productions were not observed. The public is aware that Fire and Blood Productions has apologised for the damage caused but shifted the blame onto its Gozitan sub-contractor.

This only explains one small part of the saga. No one has yet commented as to how MEPA has contributed to the debacle when it is crystal clear that it is precluded from issuing a permit for the Dwejra site in terms of the provisions of the Habitats Directive.

MEPA as the Competent Authority has the duty to ensure that the provisions of the Habitat’s Directive of the EU are observed to the letter. As explained above, through its actions MEPA has ignored both the letter and the spirit of the Habitats Directive.

This leads me to conclude that the damage caused to the SAC was not caused just by the Gozitan sub-contractor acting on behalf of Fire and Blood Productions. Through its lack of observance of the provisions of Legal Notice 311/2006 MEPA has made it much easier for damage to be inflicted onto the Dwejra SAC. Instead of protecting the environment the now reformed MEPA has facilitated its damage.

This is an environmental crime for which persons having a name and a surname are directly and personally responsible.                        

Accountability

It is time to translate words into action.

I hope that investigations currently in hand will identify the names of those responsible in order that they may be requested to account for both their actions as well as their inaction which have led to the Dwejra SAC mauling.

In a country where the organs of the state are bursting at the seams with lawyers one may sometimes assume that in Malta the rule of law is strictly observed. Such incidents prove that one is grossly mistaken in making such assumptions.    

Environmental legislation must be adhered to first of all by the state. If the state through its institutions ignores environmental legislation how do we expect Joe Bloggs to respect it?

The EU has given us the tools to hold decision takers to account. This is a reason why a large number of environmentalists voted in favour of Malta’s accession to the EU. It is the only way to save what’s left of our heritage.

Published in the Environment Supplement of  The Malta Independent on Sunday,   November 21, 2010

Baħrija Hysterics

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The on-going debate about the Baħrija Farmhouse to-be is at times verging on the hysterical, on both sides of the debate.

There are two opposing views : the first is that which essentially does not want any development Outside the Development Zone (ODZ). Dr Gonzi’s statement that “ODZ is ODZ” encapsulates this view. The second view is that the development of property is in itself an enhancement and should be encouraged, ignoring the “small irritations” like endemic flora and fauna. After all, it is argued, private property is just that private. You can (or should be able) to do whatever you like, it is argued !

I do not subscribe to either of the two views.

In fact the MEPA reform document published by government is slightly more realistic, advocating as it does the careful examination of all policies and the weeding out of those which are unnecessary or undesirable. Obviously the debate as to which of the existing policies needs to be changed is a pleasure yet to come and I will limit this contribution to the policies as existing today.

Maltese planning policies are flexible but unfortunately they are interpreted very rigidly. As such whilst development ODZ is a more delicate operation than building within the development zone Maltese planning policies permit development outside the development zone in particular circumstances which are well defined. This is as it should be.

Whilst the layman’s point of departure in considering whether to apply for a development permit such as that at the Baħrija valley (Wied Marcia) is understandably the existence on site of a structure (or even one close by) even if it is one in a state of dilapidation, the professional proceeds otherwise.

The point of departure of the professional is the fact that the site in Wied Marcia lies in a valley which is an Area of Ecological Importance (Grade 1) and a Special Area of Conservation. In addition it is afforded protection in terms of the Structure Plan which prohibits development in valleys.

Decisions in respect of other ODZ sites are not necessarily relevant as each ODZ site has to be dealt with on its own merits in view of the fact that in many cases site specific policies are applicable.

The above is in simple language the Scerri Baħrija case. It could have easily been avoided as the rules are clear.