Business Sense and Environmental Nonsense



They call it business sense.  They do not realise that at times it is also environmental nonsense.

On MEPA’s website there is a link named Businessense. More efficiency. Less bureaucracy.


Among the measures which are being labelled as being ones which make business sense the reduction of development permit fees tops the list.

Now there are instances where it makes sense to reduce and at times even eliminate completely the payment of development permit fees. Among the examples which come to mind are restoration works in Urban Conservation Areas and Scheduled properties.

The reason for such reduction/elimination of fees is the need to encourage business to ensure that properties worth preserving are in fact restored and utilised. It is a way to channel investment in the preservation of our heritage by ensuring that our past has a future.


A blanket reduction of development permit fees is however environmental nonsense. The aim of development permit fees is not just to recover the costs incurred in the processing of planning applications. Development permit fees also serve another purpose: to encourage or discourage building activity.

In the present circumstances, that is with over 72,000 vacant properties (including those used partially for seasonal accommodation) there is no need to encourage building activity.

The reduction of development permit fees by MEPA thus makes neither business nor environmental sense. It is rather classified as utter nonsense.

Id-dokument tal-MEPA dwar il-bini għoli: bla ma sar SEA

tall buildings

Id-dokument li ippubblikat il-MEPA riċentment dwar il-kostruzzjoni ta’ bini għoli kellu jkun soġġett għal stima ambjentali strategika, dak li normalment nirreferu għalih bħala Strategic Environment Assessment (SEA). Dan huwa studju, li l-Unjoni Ewropeja tobbliga li jsir dwar il-pjanijiet (plans) li jifformula Gvern u dan biex ikunu identifikati b’mod ġenerali l-impatti ambjentali u b’hekk dawn l-impatti ikunu jistgħu jkunu indirizzati minn qabel ma jinqalgħu.

Id-dokument tal-MEPA dwar il-bini għoli jidentifika l-lokalitajiet u l-parametri permissibli għall-iżvilupp ta’ bini għoli (bini ta’ iktar minn għaxar sulari) kif ukoll ta’ bini ta’ għoli medju (bini sa għoli ta’ għaxar sulari).

In-nuqqas tal-istima ambjentali strategika (SEA) joħloq dubju dwar il-validita’ tad-dokument ippubblikat mill-MEPA. Fi ftit kliem jeħtieġ li ssir din l-istima ambjentali strateġika (jiġifieri stima ambjentali dwar strateġija) u jekk jirriżulta li jkun meħtieġ għandu jkun hemm it-tibdil.

Din il-gwida dwar il-bini għoli (u bini ta’ għoli medju) li ġiet ippubblikata mill-MEPA hi immirata b’mod partikolari lejn ir-riġenerazzjoni ta’ siti b’bini dilapidat jew propjeta’ li mhiex użata biżżejjed jew b’mod adegwat u dan meta din il-propjeta qegħda barra miż-żoni storiċi, barra miż-żoni ta’ konservazzjoni urbana (UCAs) kif ukoll barra miż-żoni għal-prijorita’ residenzjali.

Sfortunatament iż-żoni identifikati huma kbar wisq. Dan hu fatt li huwa rikonoxxut mid-dokument tal-MEPA innifsu meta dan jgħid illi ser ikunu meħtieġa studji addizzjonali għall-applikazzjonijiet li eventwalment jidħlu.

Filwaqt li l-gwida tal-MEPA tidentifika l-istudji li ser ikunu meħtiega biex jiġu eżaminati l-applikazzjonijiet għall-izvilupp ta’ bini għoli jew ta’ għoli medju, l-parti l-kbira minn dawn l-istudji, inkluż kemm studji ambjentali kif ukoll il-kriterji stretti li huma meħtieġa kontra l-ħolqien ta’ dellijiet (shadowing) fuq il-propjeta’ residenzjali kellhom ikunu applikati qabel ma ittieħdu d-deċizjonijiiet dwar il-gwida tal-MEPA. Bħala riżultat in-numru ta’ lokalitajiet identifikati bħala ż-żoni magħżula kienu jkunu ferm inqas.

Id-dokument tal-MEPA kellu jkun iktar restrittiv u dan billi jillimita l-iżvilupp ta’ bini għoli jew ta’ għoli medju ghal dawk iż-żoni li jeħtieġu riġenerazzjoni. Dan kien ikun ta’ incentiv għall-industrija tal-bini biex din tassorbi u tiżviluppa mill-ġdid bini li għamel żmienu kif ukoll bini ta’ kwalita’ inferjuri li hu sitwat barra miż-Żoni ta’ Konservazzjoni Urbana (UCAs).

Local plans, and not regional


MEPA has embarked on a process which will lead to a revision of the seven existing  Local Plans. Five were approved in 2006. Two of them were approved earlier: the Marsaxlokk Bay Local Plan (1995) and the Grand Harbour Local Plan (2002).

With the exception of the Marsaxlokk Bay Local Plan (which regulates  Birżebbuġa, Marsaxlokk and their surrounding areas) all the Local Plans cover extensive areas. The Structure Plan, approved in 1990 and currently subject to revision, had identified the need for 24 Local Plans addressing urban areas, as well as other unspecified plans for Rural Conservation Areas. Initially when MEPA approved the Marsaxlokk Bay Local Plan it started along this path but then it opted for plans which are more regional than local in nature.

Local Plans are necessary in order that planning policy is appropriately applied at a local level where one can focus on practical considerations. Though there may be overlaps between Local Plans covering similar areas there will also be variations resulting from the specific nature of the different localities. There will be inevitable similarities between, for example, a Local Plan addressing Valletta and Floriana on one hand and another one addressing the Three Cities due to the fact that both contain vast stretches of fortifications.  However the planning issues arising may also lead to different considerations both in respect of what is to be prohibited as well as in what ought to be encouraged.

Local Plans are not neutral policy instruments. Departing from the common need to ensure a continuous maintenance programme for the fortifications (which programme is currently in hand)  Local Plans may explore different potential uses to which the fortifications in two completely different areas may be put. This would be dependent on the infrastructural services in the area  and on the impacts generated by the potential use  on the surrounding amenities and localities. It would be much easier to ensure that this is done through two separate local plans, one specifically addressing Valletta and Floriana and the other addressing just the Three Cities.

It is not just an issue of fortifications. The large number of vacant properties, currently totalling  over 72,000 cannot be addressed adequately at a regional level. Different policies and different targets have to be identified at a local level as both the causes as well as the extent of the problem vary from one locality to another.

Boundaries of a number of Urban Conservation Areas (UCAs) were substantially revised in 2006 on the understanding that it is better to limit the extent of a UCA to that which is necessary and essential. Consequently it should stand to reason that a smaller UCA is much better to regulate and monitor.

A number of vacant properties lie within UCAs as it costs much more to bring such properties to an adequate state compatible to modern standards of living. This is an area which has already been explored in the last years with various fiscal incentives being offered to encourage rehabilitaton and the reuse of such properties. Much more needs to be done. The revision of the Local Plans is another opportunity to re-examine the way forward in tackling the ever increasing number of vacant properties. The proposed policies must however be focused and local in nature as otherwise they will fail to have any impact at all.

As emphasised by eNGOs  the Local Plans should also be an opportunity to consider the integration of environmental policy and its applicability at a local level. Whilst all environmental policy is of relevance to our localities two particular areas easily spring to mind: air quality and noise pollution.

Both air quality and noise control standards can be undoubtedly upgraded if action is taken at a local level. Traffic generated is a major contributor to both. Heavy traffic through residential areas has to be reduced. If the Local Plans address this issue they will be simultaneously contributing to a better air quality and less acoustic pollution in urban areas.

From declarations made in the past weeks it is obvious that one of the controversial issues to be tackled, (most probably in a plan addressing rural areas) would be agro-tourism.  This is a very sensitive matter . If the point of departure is to seek to establish new development zones on the pretext of tourism than such proposals would be unacceptable. If on the other hand such a Rural Plan addresses the use of existing  agricultural holdings aiming to maximise the use of their existing footprint, provide a different touristic experience as well as  provide alternative or additional employment opportunities to our agricultural communities then there is room for considerable discussion.

The Local Plans to be produced will have an impact on our quality of life for the next ten years. It is hence imperative to not only ensure a high level of participation in the consultation process but that the resulting proposals are given due consideration.

This article was published in The Times of Malta, Saturday August 10, 2013