The Malta Independent 3 March 2024, Sunday
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Planning should be done through ‘master plans’, not on case-by-case basis – president of Periti

Marc Galdes Sunday, 26 February 2023, 08:30 Last update: about 2 years ago

Development planning should involve the “coordination of different departments” to draw up a “master plan”, rather than planning applications being processed on a “case-by-case basis”, president of the Chamber of Architects and Civil Engineers (Kamra tal-Periti – KTP) Andre Pizzuto said.

Pizzuto said that master plans were the way forward as they would establish the needs of the whole area, which is unfortunately overlooked.

“Local plans should be replaced with master plans covering each town and village, which would integrate into a wider strategic document replacing the current Strategic Plan for the Environment and Development (SPED).”

“We need to have these types of planning tools where there is coordination between the different departments who could come together for a cohesive plan, have a budget for implementation and bring it forward. This is the future and this is the way we should be planning,” he told The Malta Independent on Sunday in an interview.

He called the current planning system, where the Planning Authority (PA) determines whether or not to hand out applicants’ projects based on “quantitative assessments”, very “passive”. He was adamant that the planning system needed a complete “overhaul” as it is the root of the majority of the problems that come with development, including design and infrastructure.

 

Problem with design and planning system

Asked whether the emergence of the shoe-box type apartments and more towers was the correct way forward or was Malta losing its charm because of this kind of development, he said: “Development is something that is necessary for any economy. The shift from the vernacular style of buildings to high-rise apartment blocks and towers is part of the growth of the country and the growth in population as well.”

He said that considering the limited amount of land that Malta has to offer, “it is inevitable” that development zones are extended or high-rise buildings are used to achieve higher density per square metre.

“It does have an impact on cultural identity because you are removing or demolishing a part of our identity. This is a loss to the community.”

He mentioned how there are traditional villages which are being overwhelmed by development on the outskirts which might not be “appropriate”.

He said that traditional towns like Sliema and Hamrun are gradually losing their historical fabric and are being replaced by buildings that “perhaps do not reflect the culture of the particular town”.

He was then asked whether the influx of modernised buildings has altered the context of Malta’s built environment, therefore, to match the design more modern buildings must be built.

“One of architecture's intents is that of responding to its context. Unfortunately, the context in our legal framework and our planning documents is defined as what may happen rather than what there is today. So that makes architecture virtually impossible to do properly. So if you have to design in a context which does not exist yet that is a bit of an oxymoron for an architect to do.”

“So a lot of problems that we have in aesthetics are a result of a speculative nature of our planning policies which are not concerned with quality but are more focussed on growth and output.”

He gave the example that there is more of a focus on the quantities of units rather than the way they are built and designed.

In a previous interview with the executive president of Din L-Art Helwa, Professor Alex Torpiano, he said that the PA has not really conducted “planning”, but is rather just focused on processing applications.

“The Planning Authority has a tradition of development control. What Prof. Torpiano was talking about is development control; it is part of the planning process. Development control is basically issuing permits.”

“So development control is exercised through reference to planning policy documents, but aesthetics and architecture cannot be codified in the way a law is written and that requires more of a learned approach, more of an expert approach towards achieving quality.”

Therefore, he said that one thing that KTP has been pushing for since 2007 is for the assessment to be more qualitative rather than quantitative.

“It should be more of a qualitative assessment. Does this building fit into this context?”

“What we have been advancing, and recently more assiduously, is setting up design review panels wherein there would be a kind of a panel of design experts where the architects with their clients would come pin up their projects and there would be an iterative process. Rather than, as it is today, where you are not able to present an architectural project; you just have to present plans and prove compliance with quality parameters and design parameters.”

Asked about the overdevelopment of Malta, he said “I think we need to be looking at why we are building more.”

He said that there are two factors behind why Malta keeps building more. Firstly, he said that Malta needs to accommodate the exponential growth in its population, through housing and also other facilities such as transport and recreational amenities.

Secondly, he said that Malta’s economic model is dependent on development, which is driving the demand. “To park money basically.”

“I understand and sympathise with the frustration and the impact this is causing, but this is a result of the economic model that has been adopted as a country. So it is not something that the Planning Authority alone, or the architects alone can address, this is a national issue that needs to be addressed at a national level.”

 

Masterplans and building towers

In an interview with Michael Stivala, the MDA chief had spoken about the importance of building vertically rather than horizontally to make up for the limited amount of space Malta has to offer. Asked about this and what issues might arrive with the development of towers, Pizzuto said that the main issue with towers is that they are very demanding and put a lot of pressure on the infrastructure.

“Both in terms of transport and also in terms of other infrastructure such as electricity or drainage – the infrastructure requires extensive upgrading, but in many areas, we are not equipped for it.”

He added that the problem with the development of high-rise buildings in Malta is that the planning applications are addressed on a “case-by-case basis”.

“Whereas a good planning system would require that high-rise is integrated into a masterplan.”

“We cannot have individual developers securing enough land to satisfy the planning policy for high-rise and then not looking at the impacts of these high-rises in their urban context. It is not the fault of the developers; it is the fault of the planning system.”

He said that the “honeycomb” tower in Paceville was approved subject to certain studies, however, he said that these studies should have been done by the PA and not the developer.

The PA system is “in reverse, the system is completely upside down and it is completely wrong”.

When pressed about this later in the interview he said that in terms of development, the planning system needs a complete “overhaul” that would involve a complete rethink of the whole system.

When talking about master plans he brought up the example of the masterplan for Paceville which was proposed in 2016 but later abandoned.

“The content of that masterplan left much to be desired, but the process was correct – it is what we need.”

“Unfortunately, as Prof. Torpiano said, we have a system that is very passive. Where it is the applicant who comes up with a project and the Planning Authority determines whether or not to hand out the permit. But that is passive and based on the history of the last 30 years when the PA was set up, and not bearing any positive results.”

 

Poor infrastructure and poor planning

Asked about the poor infrastructure in Malta and whether there should be more enforcement against civil engineers for carrying out poor work, he said that this was also an issue regarding planning.

“The engineers, who are mostly employed by the public sector, are not the ones who are going to dictate to the government that we need to have a strong water infrastructure system, it is something that needs to be handled by the government.”

“We do have a serious problem with infrastructure and it needs to be planned out.”

“Civil engineers are actually the solution to this, but their skills are not being exploited appropriately. We need civil engineers to be consulted more closely by the powers that be.”

When pressed on why they were not being exploited he said that “it seems like infrastructure is not being given the attention or the priority that it needs”.

He said that infrastructure is only being discussed in the context of roads and flyovers, but in reality, is much broader than that.

“We have the case of the metro, for instance. We are talking about metros, but are we equipped, from an engineering point of view, to handle this type of development?”

Asked whether this was an issue with the limited number of civil engineers graduating from university, he denied this claim and said that it is pretty much equal and it varies from year to year.

“I am not really worried about the numbers, I am more worried about the fact that Maltese engineers and architects, unfortunately, the young ones, are moving abroad, because their skills are not being exploited, and they are not finding jobs that they are interested in pursuing.”

He added that because local architects and civil engineers are not being utilised, the money the government is investing from Malta’s taxes into their education is being lost and he fears that this is a problem that Malta will be facing in the coming years.

After getting in contact with a number of students under the Faculty for the Built Environment, the overwhelming feedback was that the low quality of education they were receiving, reflects the low quality of Malta’s built environment.

Asked about this, he said that he does not believe that this is a fair assessment as there are Maltese architects who end up working aboard and are successful in their respective jobs.

“I am not going to mention names but I have got quite a few in my head about successful architects working abroad, even in leadership positions.”

“I am not here to answer for the University, the Faculty for the Built Environment can respond to these comments.”

 

Licensing of contractors and penalising architects

Pizzuto had previously told The Malta Independent on Sunday that KTP is in favour of the licensing of contractors, however, it expressed doubt over the government’s willingness. Planning Minister Stefan Zrinzo Azzopardi recently announced that the Bill to license building contractors is expected to be presented in Parliament in March.

Over the past two weeks, contractors have been under a lot of scrutiny after dangerous demolition works were carried out on a site in Psaila Street, Birkirkara. The architect of the project, Maria Schembri Grima, was also the chairperson of the Building and Construction Authority (BCA), which are responsible for handing out fines. Schembri Grima resigned shortly after the stop notice on the project.

The BCA fined the developer of the project, Excel Limited, which is owned by Gozitan developer Joseph Portelli, €3,150, and the contractor, Polidano Brothers, €5,000.

Asked whether this was enough or whether more would need to be done, he said: “Licensing is the start, it’s not the be-all and end-all of the process. Licensing is a start because it will start establishing liabilities more clearly.”

“Unfortunately, even in discussions we have been having the attitude of 'you are the only ones who have a warrant or license so you are the only ones who can carry responsibility'. But that is a cop-out.”

“There have been ample opportunities to license contractors and I know for a fact that the good contractors want it because they are at a disadvantage and also their reputation is being harmed by these cowboy contractors.”

“The next step would be establishing standards for buildings and standards for the construction process.”

“Unfortunately, we have this diaspora of organisations, where it is impossible; it is a treasure hunt to figure out what the appropriate laws to follow when designing a building. There is very little coordination between these authorities so very often the design regulations of each authority conflict with each other and we end up having to mediate between the two or three authorities on which regulation is going to prevail.”

He was also asked what the criteria to suspend an architect’s license were and whether architects were penalised enough for any shoddy work done.

“The criteria are established in the law so there are three, failing to comply with professional regulations, bringing the profession to disrepute and professional negligence and malpractice.”

He said that these criteria are broad and KTP tries to guide architects on how to comply with them through directives. He added that the issuing of directives came with the implementation of the Periti Act.

“This is obviously all done on a voluntary basis. Over the past two years, since I have been presiding, we have had a record number of processing cases.”

He said that in a year KTP has closed around 30 cases, with a number of cases still pending, as Covid-19 slowed the process down as it was more difficult to follow cases.

“I can assure you that we are being assiduous with our cases and where appropriate we have been taking action to suspend warrants.”

Nevertheless, he pointed out that he does not want readers to get the impression that architects failing to comply with the Periti Act is a common issue among architects in general. “The cases of professional malpractice are thankfully quite limited.”

When pressed about the poor design of buildings which are widespread all over the island. He said that design is tricky to assess in terms of professional conduct as it is a bit more subjective than other forms of practice.

“We issued a directive this week on the design of a building around the megalithic temples and that is also on the back of the new Periti Act, which came into force in December. There are certain things now that we can do which we could not do previously to safeguard our cultural heritage; that is one of our new functions.”

 

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