The Malta Independent 22 July 2019, Monday

PA's discretion when calling for social impact assessments raises questions in committee meeting

Monday, 17 June 2019, 17:26 Last update: about 2 months ago

The Planning Authority will have certain discretion when it comes to asking for social impact assessments, other than in particular situations when it is obligatory, and this fact raised a few questions during a Parliamentary committee hearing.

MPs forming part of the Environment and Development Planning Committee in Parliament were discussing the Planning Authority's draft policy titled: "Social Impact Assessments as a tool for decision making in special planning."

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The Planning Authority had, when announcing this policy, said that it is proposing standard procedures for Social Impact Assessments (SIA) to become a requirement as part of the planning system. "With the practice of SIA in Malta still in its infancy, the Planning Authority, through this document is seeking to introduce a standard procedure for their use and the terms of reference to guide the preparation of future SIAs. To date, SIAs are only obligatory if a proposed project is making use of the tall buildings policy," the PA had said. A social impact assessment (SIA) seeks to identify and manage both the positive and negative social impacts of planned projects or proposed policy-making. SIAs are used to mitigate negative impacts and identify opportunities to enhance benefits for local communities and broader society."

The Planning Authority had said that it is proposing that when plans or policies are being drafted, the Executive Council assesses the need for an SIA on a case-by-case basis. However, when the Strategic Environment Assessment (SEA) screening process identifies the need for an SEA on a plan or policy, this will automatically trigger the need for an SIA to be carried out. "In proposed development applications, an SIA will become a requirement whenever the relevant plan or policy indicates it to be a requirement. All SIA reports shall be published."

During the committee meeting, PN MP Jason Azzopardi  asked what happens after such an assessment is made." If the assessment finds that the impact is negative, what will happen? Will there be clear consequences to this?"

Speaking about future policies, the PA representatives, Michelle Borg and Joe Scalpello said that the Social Impact Assessments for these will not just end with a document. There will be continuous discussions between the planning team preparing policy and planning team preparing the impact.  If the impact finds that, for example, a policy regarding penthouses will result in social revolution, then recommendation needs to be made and that policy should not go through at strategic policy stage.  If impact states that, instead of using 80% of the roof footprint one can mitigate the issue by using 50%, then the impact can be sustainably reduced."

They said that the policy making stage is an evolving process.

On private projects the scenario is different they said.  "Projects come to the PA most often already at a very advanced stage and one must assess this project and what impact on the community it will have and then mitigation measures will come in.  If measures can be integrated then they must be done by the developer and if not then the directorate must take the fact that there will be a residual social impact and then come to holistic conclusion on whether a project is to proceed or not."

Planning Authority representatives Michelle Borg and Joe Scalpello, describing the proposed policy, said that the idea is to bring in something that is standardised, a systematic process, they explained, which will result in more transparency.

The social impact assessment process is not a replacement of other assessments or public consultation on applications, but is just another added layer, they said.

Once such a report is concluded for a project, it will be issued for public consultation along with the general planning application in question, they said.

Asked about what the authority does today based on these studies, the authority representatives said that mitigation measures related to planning will be integrated in the new permit. Asked about enforcement of these measures, they PA representatives said that enforcement would be the responsibility of the agency responsible for that sector

Parliamentary Secretary Roderick Galdes said that such assessments should be considered to be done by the PA when taking long-term policy decisions, such as if it considers raising building heights for an area, etc.

PN MP Jason Azzopardi said that it is a good proposal. He asked, as a result of this policy, which cases will it be mandatory to include a social impact assessment, aside from when tall buildings are involved?

The representatives said that it will be mandatory in cases where Strategic Environment Assessment screening will identify the need for a Social Impact Assessment. "As a general rule, anything else will be on a case-by-case basis, they said, decided upon by the Council when proposed by the Planning Directorate."

Azzopardi said that when one has discretion it allows for abuse or discretion for interpretation.  "Isn't it the case to remove that discretion? How can we fix this or am I worrying for nothing?"

The representatives said that the social impact assessment process is new to Malta. This hybrid approach is there to see which cases need it, they said, and if in x cases y happened, the directorate can go to the council and ask for it to be changed given Y happened. "It's a learning process."

Alex Muscat asked about which experts would be able to conduct such assessments, and they said that according to the proposal, they would not have a register of experts." It's like the EIA in the 1990s,  as time went on people gained expertise in conducting them."

Currently there are not more than 5 or 6 people on the islands capable of conducting them, the representatives said.  

Claire Bonello, representing NGOs, said that they have had some experience with the social impact assessments due to high rise buildings, but said there were issues with them. She said that they generally are seen as a box-ticking exercise, and then the findings would be ignored. She mentioned a case where negative impacts were highlighted, but the permit was still granted.

She said that she would like to avoid the mistakes made in the past. As for when such assessments take place, she argued that at the moment is not clear how Strategic Environment Assessment screening for large projects takes place. "If the screening unit decides that there is no need for an Social Impact Assessment , can it be appealed," she asked? Bonello said that there need to be more ground rules not requiring the council's discretion.

 "When mitigation or compensatory measures are included in Social Impact Assessments sone should see whether they go against other plans or policies and ensure that their effect will be studied."

"If the Social Impact Assessment conclusion finds that the impact will be negative, there must be measures to downsize the project or stop it from happening. There have been cases where the application just kept going through regardless."

Bonello said that a number of mitigation measures are not really enforceable. "For example if include a measure that the developer will discuss with Transport Mata to find alternative transport routes etc. how will this be enforced?  They can go for a discussion and just tick the box. There need to be enforceable conditions. "

The PA representatives said that that the SEA screening process uses a standard methodology, using a standard template. That document is published by the PA, they said, on their website. They said that they were not sure if there is a right to an appeal emerging from the legal notice and would need to check.

They said that they will continue working to improve the document proposal. On mitigation measures, they said they will take the point that mitigation measures be realisable and enforceable, and is a comment that they can include in the revised document. "Again we will learn by experience and the more of such assessments we conduct the more we will improve."

PN MP Azzopardi then asked about a different topic, regarding recent court decisions finding pre-1995 rent laws, bringing them into scrutiny. Azzopardi said that they are being declared to breach human rights. He said that these will end up resulting in problems for housing. He said that he recently spoke to an elderly woman in such rent, and that there are thousands more, and that this situation could lead to a housing crisis. He made clear that he was not criticising the judgements. "Would you as the directorate delve into the housing requirements of the country for the next 10 years keeping in mind the rent laws? Would you keep in mind these developments? These judgements will impact thousands of people. I don't think there is anything more socially important than having a roof over your head."

The PA's representative said that this is not something that was discussed, but the SPED, when speaking about housing supply, does not speak about market segmentation. The forecast we did was total need for housing, and found that we have enough space, that the number of units are enough to accommodate the need for housing. Then there is affordability and social housing, and this type of segmentation we have not done, but if the government direction is that even at planning stage we need to allocate specific areas for specific types of housing obviously we can do it. But at this stage our criteria was to ensure that the global need for housing can be accommodated within the development zone."

 

 


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