The Malta Independent 13 November 2019, Wednesday

Every ministry should employ qualified planners – Chamber of Planners

Albert Galea Sunday, 16 June 2019, 09:00 Last update: about 6 months ago

Every ministry and government entity should employ qualified planners within their teams to come up with an integrated approach to improve the country, while planning itself must be focused on the common good, Anthony Ellul and Chris Attard from the Malta Chamber of Planners told The Malta Independent on Sunday in an interview.

The Malta Chamber of Planners was constituted in 1997, after a number of people began graduating from planning courses which became available after the Planning Authority (PA) was set up in 1992. By the end of the 1990s, there were some 80 qualified planners on the island, which was the main motivating factor behind the setting up of the chamber.

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The chamber was then very active, participating in the Building Industry Consultative Council and in the Sustainable Development Committee, and is included as a consultative body in the Development Planning Act. Since then, though, despite the fact that the number of qualified planners stand at around 200, the chamber has fallen on harder times; membership has dwindled and recognition is all the more difficult.

The Malta Independent on Sunday recently reported that a master’s degree in Spatial Planning offered by the University of Malta had attracted no applications whatsoever since its introduction three years ago. Chris Attard, a member of the Malta Planning Chamber’s committee, pinpoints the simple reason as to why: “There are no career paths for planners.”

The only opportunity for work as a planner is within the PA, where there are only four grades through which one can progress, and most will never reach the highest grade as there is very limited number of places to fill.

Furthermore, Attard notes that the profession itself is not recognised. One does not need a warrant to call oneself a planner; so many unqualified people are calling themselves planners when they are clearly not.

However, it is a misconception that planning is confined to the PA, Attard says. “Planners can be employed with each ministry and with entities such as Transport Malta and then come up with a coordinated effort to understand the needs of each respective sector and draw up an integrated approach to development,” he notes.

This is because, Anthony Ellul, the secretary of the Malta Chamber of Planners, says, planning is about much more than land use. The discipline of holistic planning is centred on ensuring that the various competing uses of land are managed in a way so that they do not conflict with each other and result in better quality of life for the people of the area. This means taking into account social issues such as drug use, crime rates and general social impact assessments.

“The main function of the PA should be to balance social, economic, and environmental elements at the same time,” Attard says.

“The PA has to work towards the common good; the end result has to always be something that improves people’s quality of life – something which is not happening today,” Ellul adds before noting that Malta actually has the resources and human knowledge to take this holistic approach.

One of the most significant problems that the island is facing today from a planning point of view, Ellul begins, is in how policies are being enforced and interpreted.

Firstly, Ellul notes, the revision of Malta’s local plans, which started in 2013, has now suddenly ground to a halt, despite consultations.

Aside from this, however, Ellul points out flaws in the currently enacted planning policies. The Strategic Plan for Environment and Development (SPED) bears the brunt of the criticism: “SPED is a number of vague policies which allows practically everything – you can approve or refuse based on those policies because the wording is so vague that you can play about it as you wish,” Ellul says.

The Floor Area Ratio, which is the PA’s policy for tall buildings, has failed to ensure that useable public open spaces are provided as part of each tower project, Ellul says. All in all, there is next to nothing in terms of policy that actually protects the interests of local people, he says.

The public consultation process that the PA employs is quite vast, Ellul admits, but it is not about just having that system; it is about taking note of what people are objecting to and even potentially refusing that development if it is affecting their quality of life.

Asked about that consultation process and whether the chamber, as an organisation listed in the Development Planning Act as a consultative body, were consulted by the PA on recent policies, Ellul notes that while he is not altogether sure whether they were consulted on SPED, the chamber definitely was not consulted on the Paceville Master Plan. Attard also chimes in to say that the chamber was not consulted on the controversial Fuel Station Policy either.

Turning to the Paceville Master Plan, which was sent back to the drawing board in 2016 following a near unanimous reaction of horror to it, Ellul said that it failed because it took the wrong starting point. Instead of assessing what the problems in the area are and what the end vision should be, the plan simply saw that there were nine potential towers for the area and sought to accommodate them.

The problem now, however, is that while the plan itself has been shelved, the developments in the area – Mercury House, Villa Rosa, DB’s mega-project for instance – are still going ahead.

“A report – bad as it was – which took developments into consideration was created; the report failed, but the developments are still going ahead – I cannot understand that,” Ellul said.

In a few years, problems getting in and out of Paceville will begin to manifest themselves, he says. “This area is going to have high-quality hotels, whereas getting in and out will be hell; where is the coordination here?” he questions.

Besides all this, however, there are problems in the actual attitudes towards planning, Ellul and Attard agree.

From a political perspective, Ellul notes that there is an attitude within the government – both today and in the past – to stretch each sector – be it tourism, construction, or industry – as far as it can be stretched despite the limited nature of the island’s space and resources; an attitude which is to the detriment of people’s quality of life.

The public, Attard says, still has this “why can I not do what I want with my property” mentality, where in actual fact, planning is about managing land and balancing space for the common good.

There was a chance to instil a planning culture in the 1990s, Ellul recalls, but politicians bowed to pressure from people against the restrictions that planning brings.

“There was a time when governments could have pushed for the civic responsibility side of planning and created a culture like that in northern Europe, but it was not done properly; that’s why planners today are disillusioned,” he continues.

The worst thing we can do is see planning as controlling, or just being there to reject things, Ellul says before noting that this was the attitude that sparked resistance in the 1990s.

He laments that even today, the prime minister was reported as saying that he did not like planning in the long term, even though one needs a vision of where he wants to arrive and how he is going to get there to continue moving forward.

“We need a vision and a debate about this vision so we start tackling the main issues. There are needs and we need to start answering to them. If we don’t plan now when the economy is in full swing, when shall we start? A lot of commitments are being made now, but there will be more complications in the future if we do not plan,” Attard says.

There is a positive side to things, at least. Both Ellul and Attard say that the Chamber have been in contact with the ministry responsible for planning through both Transport and Infrastructure Minister Ian Borg and Parliamentary Secretary for Planning and the Property Market Chris Agius, and both seem to hold planners in a higher, more positive regard.

Still, Malta has been going through near unprecedented levels of development, with many thinking that the situation is untenable as it is. The situation has been blamed on different people and different sectors, from planners and developers, to politicians and the rest.

Attard believes that everybody is in part to blame due to a lack of vision in every field. Ellul however, disagrees, laying the blame squarely at the feet of politicians and at “the decision-makers that they appoint to certain positions.”

“A vision where you want to accommodate everybody is not the right one,” he says.

Neither Ellul nor Attard are particularly optimistic about what would happen if there is no drastic change in mindset when it comes to planning.

There is a limit to things, Ellul says. In transport, for instance, he says that it is impossible to keep opening and widening roads as that it taking up more and more agricultural and ODZ land, while Attard also cites concerns over elements like waste management, drainage, electricity, water supply, and water run-off.

“The fear is that when all these problems reach a certain stage and somebody says ‘Oh, we need to plan,’ it might too late,” Ellul says.

“It may be the case that we need to slow down – but nobody is going to say that,” Ellul says before Attard chimes in and adds that “nobody wants to slow down.”

“At some point in time, when living here becomes really claustrophobic, something will have to give – and I do not know what will happen and how we will cope at that stage,” Ellul concludes.

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