The Malta Independent 19 January 2020, Sunday

Planning decisions – more of the same?

Tara Cassar Tuesday, 3 December 2019, 08:20 Last update: about 3 months ago

Last Friday, it was announced that following the resignation of ex-CEO Johann Buttigieg, Martin Saliba had been chosen as the new head of the Planning Authority.

Until last week, Martin Saliba held the position of Chairman of the Environment and Planning Tribunal [EPRT]. In this role he oversaw and decided on several appeals of controversial high-profile planning applications. The decisions taken by the tribunal during his tenure as Chairman may give us some insight as to what to expect from his new position as CEO of the Planning Authority.

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City Centre Towers (ex-ITS site), Pembroke

The City-centre mega development overlooking St George’s Bay in Pembroke (more often referred to as the DB towers) is undoubtedly one of the most contested and derided private developments approved by the Planning Authority in recent years. The proposal, approved by the Planning Board back in September 2018, was set to see two massive structures towering over Pembroke, with one of the two towers having a width of over 150m, being more akin to a 17-storey high bastion wall blockading the residents of Pembroke.  

NGOs and residents of Pembroke got together and appealed the Planning Board’s decision in the hope that the Environment and Planning Tribunal would be more sympathetic to the horrendous impacts which this monster development would bring about.  

The grounds of appeal were extensive, addressing technical issues, planning issues, concerns due to environmental impact, air pollution and loss of cultural heritage impacts to name a few. The appeal also addressed the serious issue of the bias of certain board members, most notably Matthew Pace. During the proceedings of the appeal Matthew Pace was shown to have direct business links with an estate agency that had already been advertising the major project before it was even approved, meaning that he could benefit financially through the approval of an application that he himself was deciding on.

On that occasion the tribunal saw no conflict of interest, completely dismissing the serious doubts raised by the appellants on the planning board member’s impartiality. The tribunal in part justified its position by making a comparison between Mr Pace and the NGO representative, Ms Annick Bonello, who also sits on the Planning Board. The tribunal said in its decision that by representing NGOs, whose position on an application was often public before a decision was taken, she too could be seen to have a conflict of interest.

This banal argument was contested by NGOs and residents who then filed a court appeal. The court of appeal upheld the NGOs’ appeal and in no uncertain terms confirmed that Mr Matthew Pace did indeed have a conflict of interest due to his direct financial interest in the development. The NGOs and residents were right.

Central Link, Attard

A more recent application was that of the large-scale road-widening of the full stretch of road from Mrieħel to Rabat and the introduction of a new by-pass, largely encroaching on land falling outside of the development zone in Attard. An extensive part of this ODZ land is rural agricultural land which is still being worked by farmers to this very day.

Again, the grounds of appeal presented by NGOs together with residents were extensive, comprehensive and detailed. They were based on technical grounds, planning issues, serious environmental concerns, an unprecedented loss of heritage and a total disregard for the dire need to shift our dependency away from private vehicles and towards sustainable modes of transport.

Despite reports put forward by experts in heritage preservation, transport and planning, and documents upon documents repeatedly exposing the dangers of the application, the tribunal  dismissed each and every ground of appeal put forward by the appellants, and paved the way for Infrastructure Malta to proceed with this megalomaniac, unsustainable project.

The country's natural, urban and cultural heritage have taken a beating in these past years. It is sincerely hoped that the changes at the Planning Authority will mark a change of course - and not more of the same.

Tara Cassar is an architect focusing on planning policies and environmental issues related to land-use, active with a number of local eNGOs.

[email protected]

 

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