The accelerated destruction of agricultural land

We live in an eco-system which is being slowly destroyed. This is recognised by one and all.

Consider, for example the introductory sentences in the White Paper entitled Acquisition and ownership of agricultural land published for public consultation by the Ministry for Agriculture last October. We were then told that: Controlling the acquisition and ownership of land is fundamental to guaranteeing the sustainability of agriculture and food production, as well as the protection of the rural environment. For this reason, whenever there are issues in this area, these not only affect farmers but also have a strong impact on the supply and security of food and the quality of the environment that can be enjoyed by society.

Agricultural land has value. Its value is not just economic. It has an environmental and social value. This is recognised as a fact even by the Ministry for Agriculture. Why then, may we ask, does the Ministry not take a robust stand whenever other Ministries embark on a spree of accelerated destruction of agriculture land?

On a continuous basis the Planning Authority receives and processes applications for development which seek to obliterate agricultural land. This is done for the simple reason that the local plans are buttressed by a land use planning philosophy which fails to protect the intrinsic value of agriculture. It is deemed to be expendable. The Ministry for Agriculture, in this situation, is conspicuously silent, continuously!

Unfortunately, the only value which the Planning Authority understands and appreciates is that which facilitates “making hay while the sun shines”. It has been continuously an accomplice in the gradual destruction of all that surrounds us.

Unnecessary road infrastructure has gobbled up considerable swathes of agricultural land over the past years. The private sector has been transforming considerable agricultural tracts into barbeque or picnic areas squeezing out the farming community in the process. The Planning Authority has the legal remit to stop this but it has continuously failed to act. Until the recent public outcry in response to a number of Court decisions relative to agricultural leases, the Ministry for Agriculture has been silent on this matter too!

Two specific planning development applications (currently still pending) come to mind: one in Qormi to construct and operate a supermarket on agricultural land Outside the Development Zone (ODZ). The other relative to the construction of a school on agricultural land at Għaxaq.

We have been through the relative arguments many a time, in particular when debating the site selection exercise for the American University at Marsaskala some years back! The arguments made then are still valid today. We cannot keep sacrificing agricultural land. We have too little of it and we have to take care of the little we have.

The application form for the Għaxaq school declares black on white that the current use of the site is agricultural: each and every one of the 35,970 square metres of the site. The application form for the Qormi site, on the other hand states that the site measuring 4708 square metres which it is proposed to develop into a supermarket is currently “un-used”.

These planning applications are still in their early stages, even though an EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment) has been produced for the proposed Għaxaq development.

At this point we need to query: do we need the development proposed? The answer, in my opinion is a clear no. We definitely do not need more supermarkets. There are already too many of them.

As to the proposed school at Għaxaq the issue is much more complex. It does not however justify sacrificing more agricultural land. Other solutions should be explored, even though a search for an alternative has been going on unsuccessfully for quite some time. The solution lies in the redevelopment of existing dilapidated buildings of which we have quite a number.

We do however need policy coherence in respect of the protection of agricultural land. The Ministry of Agriculture should be at the forefront in such an exercise. It could definitely start by ensuring that public projects as well as policies factor in agriculture’s intrinsic value. This is the required starting point. The public sector sets the benchmark. If it fails to turn the page, matters will definitely change from bad to worse!

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 8 January 2023

Wanted: a transport policy which makes sense

Everywhere is within reach in the Maltese islands: distances are relatively small. It is, in addition, an established fact, documented in the Transport Masterplan, that 50 per cent of private car trips on our roads take less than fifteen minutes. Do we need to be dependent on private cars for such short distances?

Over the years public transport was neglected. In the absence of suitable public transport, and as a reaction thereto, a pattern of car dependency has inevitably developed. The resulting congested roads are a symptom of this fact rather than being, as suggested in Parliament earlier this week by a government backbencher, the direct consequence of an increase in the country’s standard of living.

There have been improvements in public transport in the last years: these are however insufficient. Having free public transport is a good but pre-mature initiative as public transport has yet to be efficient and reliable. The decision announced last week by Transport Minister to invest in cycle lanes, is welcome, even if it comes a little late in the day.

The heavy investment in road infrastructure over the years has been misdirected as it has focused on the effects instead of on the causes of traffic congestion. The financial resources utilised in the Marsa Road network, the Central Link and elsewhere, will, at the end of the day, prove to be monies down the drain as traffic congestion will build up once more. This is already evident even in these early days. Others have been there before us as is revealed by countless studies carried out all over the world on the link between traffic congestion and improvement of the road infrastructure.

It is only through the provision of alternative means of sustainable mobility that the problematic behavioural pattern we have developed over the years can be addressed. Moving away from car dependency will however be a very slow process if policy makers keep continuously sending conflicting signals.

Making it easier for the car user through more or better roads is no help in solving the problem. It will make matters worse. Likewise, the subsidisation of petrol and diesel is sending a clear message to all that car dependency is not even considered to be a problem.

Three specific factors are currently in play: traffic congestion, fuel cost and the transition to transport electrification. If properly managed, together they can help us move towards a state of sustainable mobility. The transition period is however necessarily painful unless it is properly managed.

Postponement in tackling traffic congestion properly will only make matters worse.

Improvement of road infrastructure has postponed the issue of tackling traffic congestion into the future. Fuel subsidies have added to the problem as they blatantly ignore it. Electrification, unless coupled with a reduction of cars on the road will add acute electricity dependency on foreign sources to our current problems. Energy sovereignty has been problematic for quite some time: it will get worse.

The second electricity interconnector with the Sicilian mainland will worsen our car dependency as a result of linking it with a dependency on electricity generated outside our shores. We know quite well what that signifies whenever the interconnector is out of service, whatever the cause!

We need to go beyond the rhetoric and act before it is too late. It is also possible to ensure that the vulnerable are adequately protected. This would mean that instead of having across-the-board subsidises, these would be focused on those who really need them. All those who have mobility problems should receive focused assistance to help them overcome the difficulties which could result from a modal shift in transport. We cannot however go on with subsidies for all: it is not sustainable, neither economically, nor environmentally or socially

Land use planning can also be of considerable help if it is focused on the actual needs of the whole community instead of being at the service of the developers. We need to ensure that each community is self-sufficient in respect of its basic needs. This will, on its own, decrease traffic generated by the search for such needs.

The climate change debate is a unique opportunity to rethink the way we plan our cities as one way in which to combat the climate crisis. The idea crystallised as ‘the 15-minute city’ by Carlos Moreno, an architect advising the Paris mayor, entails turning current urban planning on its head to ensure that all our basic needs are available within easy reach, not more than 15 minutes away.

Carlos Moreno speaks of a social circularity for living in our urban spaces based on six essential functions: to live in good housing, to work close by, to reach supplies and services easily, to access education, healthcare and cultural entitlement locally by low-carbon means. Can we reassess the nature and quality of our urban lifestyles within these parameters?

All we do is essentially linked. At the end of the day traffic congestion and the related car dependency are a product of our mode of behaviour.  Thinking outside the box, we can tackle it successfully, as a result unchaining ourselves from our car dependency, consequently adjusting to a better sustainable lifestyle.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday 20 November 2022

Għas-servizz tal-ispekulaturi

Il-ħatra ta’ Marthese Portelli bħala Direttur Ġenerali tal-Assoċjazzjoni tal-Iżviluppaturi Maltin (MDA) hi mossa intelliġenti min-naħa ta’ Sandro Chetcuti. Hi mossa li ġiet ippreżentata bħala pass il-quddiem fl-organizzazzjoni aħjar tal-iżviluppaturi, imma fl-istess ħin tikxef il-PN kif inhu verament : li taħt il-maskra tapasi favur l-ambjent hemm realtà ta’ xorta oħra. Is-servizz tal-ispekulaturi.

L-għażla tal-ex Membru Parlamentari Marthese Portelli mill-MDA hi pass biex jippreżentaw ruħhom b’mod iktar rispettabbli fil-konfront ta’ dawk li jiddarsu mill-assoċjazzjoni ta’ Sandro Chetcuti mar-raba’ sular tal-Partit Laburista taħt it-tmexxija ta’ Keith Schembri l-Kasco. B’daqqa ta’ pinna l-assoċjazzjoni tal-MDA issa hi maż-żewġ partiti l-kbar. Sandro jibqa’ dejjem interessat fiż-żewġ supermarkets politiċi, dejjem ifettex l-offerti tat-tnejn biex jara x’jaqbel fl-interess tal-ispekulazzjoni u tal-ispekulaturi. Sandro hu konsistenti favur l-interess tal-membri tal-MDA.

Fid-dawl tal-ħatra ta’ Marthese Portelli dak li qalet fuq issues ambjentali u l-ippjanar tal-użu tal-art tul is-snin, issa jiġi mifli għall-kuntrasti u l-kontradizzjonijiet li bla dubju ser jibdew jirriżultaw. Tul ix-xhur li ġejjin naraw il-kuntrast bejn dak li qalet fil-passat u dak li ser tipprova tiddefendi jew tipproponi fil-futur.

F’dan il-kuntest, dak li qal riċentement Adrian Delia dwar Marthese Portelli jassumi sinifikat ikbar: Ma’ Marthese Portelli dejjem taf fejn int. Tgħid?

Pjani Lokali tal-lastku

Meta l-Pjani Lokali kienu approvati, kien l-ewwel darba li f’Malta sar attentat biex ikun regolat l-iżvilupp fuq livell lokali bis-serjetà. Il-ħtieġa kienet ilha tinħass is-snin. L-ippjanar għall-użu tal-art b’mod professjonali, f’Malta, beda fl-1989 bil-proċess iwassal għall-ħolqien tal-Awtorità tal-Ippjanar.

Għall-bidu, kif jispjega b’mod ċar fil-pjan ta’ struttura, kien ippjanat li jkun hemm 24 pjan lokali għall-Malta u Għawdex, imma imbagħad spiċċajna b’sebgħa. Ħames Pjani Lokali kienu approvati fl-2006, bit-tnejn l-oħra jkunu approvati iktar kmieni: dak dwar il-Bajja ta’ Marsaxlokk fl-1995 u dak dwar il-Port il-Kbir fl-2002.

Meta l-pjani lokali kienu mfassla, oriġinalment għall-konsultazzjoni pubblika, kienu meqjusa bħala restrittivi għax ftit kienu jħallu lok għal diskrezzjoni. Sa dakinnhar ħadd ma kien għadu fassal il-politika dwar l-użu tal-art b’mod hekk ċar, b’mod li jnaqqas il-lok għall-abbuż kif ukoll il-poter assolut vestit f’persuna waħda:il-politku. Dakinnhar kien hemm resistenza konsiderevoli li l-affarijiet isiru b’dan il-mod. Dan jispjega għaliex dawn il-pjani lokali damu ħafna ma saru. Hija ukoll ir-raġuni li wasslet għal dak li nirreferu għalih bħala l-eżerċizzju ta’ razzjonalizzazzjoni li bħala riżultat tiegħu meded kbar ta’ art, madwar żewġ miljun metru kwadru, fil-parti l-kbira art agrikola, fl-2006, kienu ddikjarati mill-Parlament bħala li tajbin għall-iżvilupp.

Il-pjani lokali huma essenzjalment dokumenti miktuba li fihom hemm spjegata l-politika lokali dwar l-użu tal-art flimkien ma mapep li jillustraw din il-politika. Tul is-snin dawn il-pjani lokali ġew ikkumplimentati b’dokumenti oħra dwar materji speċifiċi. Kważi kollha b’ċertu ammont ta’ kontroversja marbuta magħhom. Dwar dawn ktibt diversi drabi f’dawn il-paġni.

F’Jannar 2013, wara perjodu ta’ konsultazzjoni kif trid il-liġi, l-Awtorità tal-Ippjanar kellha f’idejha dokument ieħor li kien approvat: nirreferu għalih bħala l-politka tal-flessibilità. Huwa intitolat : Partial Review of Subsidiary Plans: General Policy relating to Regeneration/Consolidation initiatives. L-iżviluppaturi (u l-periti tagħhom) flimkien mal-Awtorità tal-Ippjanar jinterpretaw dan id-dokument bħala li jagħtihom mano libera biex jiddeċiedu dwar liema huma dawk il-partijiet tal-Pjani Lokali li għandhom jinjoraw.
Sfortunatament uffiċjali tal-Awtorità tal-Ippjanar, spiss wisq, jaġixxu qieshom għandhom xi dritt divin li jiddeċiedu dwar liema huma dawk ir-regoli tal-ippjanar li għandhom japplikaw u liema huma dawk li għandhom jinjoraw.

Kaz speċifiku qam quddiem il-Bord tal-Awtorità tal-Ippjanar iktar kmieni din il-ġimgħa dwar żvilupp propost fuq biċċa art kbira fil-Mellieħa. Il-Pjan Lokali tal-Majjistral jipprovdi li ma jistgħux jinbnew lukandi fiż-żona residenzjali fejn hemm din l-art. Imma l-uffiċjali tad-Direttorat tal-Ippjanar, friski daqs ħassa, jirreferu għall-politika dwar il-flessibilità bl-addoċċ u jirrakkomandaw li l-lukanda proposta hi aċċettabbli. .

L-applikazzjoni tal-politika dwar il-flessibilità fl-ippjanar hi limitata mill-kundizzjonijiet fid-dokument imsemmi iktar il-fuq. Il-limitazzjoni prinċipali hi li l-flessibilità ma tistax tmur kontra l-linja ġenerali stabilita fil-Pjani Lokali. Għax il-politika dwar l-ippjanar għandha tkun flessibli imma mhux tkun tal-lastku!

Numru ta’ deċiżjonijiet li ħadet l-Awtorità tal-Ippjanar ibbażati fuq din l-interpretazzjoni skorretta tal-politika tal-flessibilità kienu kkontestati fit-Tribunal ta’ Reviżjoni għall-Ambjent u l-Ippjanar u fil-Qrati u kienu mħassra. Fid-dawl ta’ dawn id-deċiżjonijiet, jiena ma nistax nifhem kif l-Awtorità tal-Ippjanar ma tikkoreġix il-posizzjoni tagħha.

Inizzjalment l-applikazzjoni inkorretta tal-politika tal-flessibilità fl-ippjanar tal-użu tal-art setgħet titqies bħala żball. Imma meta dan l-iżball jibqa’ jkun repetut ma jibqax żball iżda jsir abbuż ta’ poter li għandu jkun indirizzat immedjatament.

Ippubblikat fuq Illum : il-Ħadd 3 ta’ Marzu 2019

The elasticity of the Local Plans

The Local Plans currently in force, when they were approved, were a first serious attempt in these islands to regulate development at a local level. The need had been felt for far too long. Professional land use planning in Malta started in earnest in 1989 with the process leading to the setting up of the Planning Authority.

Originally, as clearly explained in the Structure Plan, it was planned to have 24 local plans for the Maltese Islands, but we ended up with just seven. Five local plans were approved in 2006, with the other two having been approved earlier: the Marsaxlokk Bay Local Plan in 1995 and the Grand Harbour Local Plan in 2002.

When the local plans were originally drafted for public consultation they were considered as highly restrictive. It was then unheard of to clearly define policy, reducing loopholes and absolute power vested in one person, the politician. There was then considerable resistance to such a course of action. This is the major reason for the long gestation period of these plans. It is also the reason which led to what is known as the rationalisation exercise as a result of which large stretches of land, around two million square metres, mostly agricultural land, was in 2006 declared by Parliament as suitable for development.

Local plans are essentially written statements containing local land use policies and policy maps illustrating the said policies. Over the years the local plans have been buttressed by supplementary guidance with specific policy documents containing a varying degree of controversy, about which I have written extensively in these columns over the years.

In January 2013, after the statutory consultation period, planning policy acquired an additional document, commonly referred to as the flexibility policy. It is entitled: Partial Review of Subsidiary Plans: General Policy relating to Regeneration/Consolidation initiatives. Developers (and their architects) as well as the Planning Authority tend to interpret this policy document as giving them a free hand in determining the extent to which they may depart from provisions of the Local Plans.

Unfortunately, Planning Authority officials tend to assume too often that they have some God-given right to decide which planning policies to apply and which to ignore.

A specific case came before the Planning Authority Board earlier this week relative to a large site in Mellieħa. The North West Local Plan provides that no new hotels can be developed in the residential area of which this site forms part. Yet, invoking the above-quoted flexibility policy officials at the Planning Directorate did not bat an eyelid and recommended that the proposed hotel was acceptable development.

Application of the planning flexibility policy is limited by the conditions set out in the policy, primarily that the general thrust or direction given by specific policies in the Local Plan is not to be superseded. Planning policy may be flexible but it should certainly not be elastic!

A number of decisions taken by the Planning Authority based on such an incorrect interpretation of the flexibility policy have been contested in the Environment and Planning Review Tribunal as well as in Court and were reversed. Faced with such decisions I fail to understand why the Planning Authority does not correct its ways.

Initially the incorrect application of the planning flexibility policy could have been considered as a case of wrongful interpretation of policy. Repetition can only be construed as an abuse of authority and should be dealt with accordingly.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday – 3 March 2019