The Malta Independent 21 April 2024, Sunday
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'Message being sent is go ahead, abuse, and wait until the next amnesty' - Astrid Vella

Kevin Schembri Orland Sunday, 21 May 2023, 07:30 Last update: about 12 months ago

The message being sent by the government through the recent expansion of the regularisation policy is for people to “go ahead, abuse in their development and then just wait until the next amnesty”, Flimkien ghal Ambjent Ahjar coordinator Astrid Vella told The Malta Independent on Sunday.

In an interview with this media house, one week before a national protest called Xebbajtuna! Bidla fl-Ambjent u l-Ippjanar ISSA! (We are fed up, we need a change in environment and planning now!) is set to take place in Valletta, Vella spoke about the reasons for this protest and her ideas to reform the relevant authorities.

Asked about the upcoming protest, she said that it wasn’t prompted by a single issue, but by a build-up of issues.

"We weren’t able to protest during the Covid pandemic. Since restrictions lifted, the issues have just continued building up, culminating with the project in Comino and the new open-ended regularisation of abuse in ODZ areas. The new regulations are very generous in terms of what can be regularised."

The Regularisation of Existing Development Regulations had been introduced in August 2016 and give property owners the opportunity to regularise their unsanctionable, non-conformant development located entirely within the development boundaries. However, the legal notice published in April extended this to properties that extend partially onto ODZ land. Among other things the irregular development must appear in the 2016 aerial photographs taken by the Authority. Fees vary, for example from between €400 to €989,000 for all un-roofed development at ground level on land ODZ covered by a development permit issued prior to the coming into force of these regulations, with the lowest amount for a site area of 25sq.m. outside the development zone, with the amount rising to €989,000 for an ODZ area of more than 10,000sq.m.

This Legal Notice, she said, "yet again encourages abuse. We've seen these regularisations and amnesties come out at regular intervals. The message being sent is go ahead, abuse, and then wait until the next amnesty. It's so blatantly corrupt, there's no other word for it."

One of the demands being made by the protest organisers is the immediate radical reform of institutions responsible for environment, planning and lands, “so that they would start functioning in a serious and transparent manner and independently from politicians and businesses”.

She said that all of these organisations need to be “more conscious of their roles to protect”.

“Having the Environment and Resources Authority (ERA) and the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage rubber stamp applications which should be stopped is shocking."

One such permit, she said, "is to run a motorway from Victoria to Marsalforn which FAA is contesting in an appeal. The ERA conveniently overlooked that the project is going to destroy some 40 protected trees, not to mention the wildlife they support and the iconic landscape”. This permit, she said, will allow a minister to hand out a lucrative contract “to plough through one of Gozo's more scenic valleys. Is that what ERA stands for?"

She also criticised the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage (SCH). "We’ve seen cases where the SCH first strongly objected to projects that destroy heritage, then subsequently approved the case.” Some new approvals are "absolutely terrible proposals, either including the wholesale destruction of a building in the urban conservation area which is supposed to be retained or the addition of multiple floors over old properties". She gave the example of a protected four-storey landmark property in Balluta, saying that the Superintendence “is approving the addition of six floors in a totally incongruent style on top of the existing four floors. We feel that these authorities are betraying their role and the Maltese public".

Told that there have been a number of decisions in favour of heritage protection, such as the scheduling of Palazzina Vincenti, Vella said that the move only came after many years calling for it. "Why should it take such an investment of time and effort on the part of the public to get these authorities to do their work? Why should we have to be grateful when in reality they’re finally doing what they're set up to do."

Asked what needs to be done in terms of the Planning Authority, and whether she believes the splitting up of the environment arm from the planning arm years ago was a mistake, she said: "It's not a question of whether the sections should be welded together or remain separate.”

"It’s about allowing the department that deals with natural heritage to do its work properly, whether it's part of the Planning Authority or independent." In the past it was "subsumed below the overwhelming power of the Planning Authority," she said, adding that it is in the exact same position today. 

"The question is whether it should be run by people of integrity who have the nation's interests at heart, and this goes for all the authorities, in whatever sector.” Reform of the Planning Authority needs to begin by putting knowledgeable people of integrity in charge, she said, “people who do not see their role as simply rubber stamping what they are told from above and furthering the interests of developers. This applies across the board, whether it is the Planning Authority, ERA, the Superintendence or the Lands Authority. The triumvirate of the PA, ERA and the Superintendence are undermining the quality of life in Malta, aided and abetted by the Lands Authority."

The demands by the protest organisers are to change certain planning policies, which include those allowing buildings in areas outside the development zone, the height and intensity of buildings and the height of hotels. Asked about the argument that it is better to build up rather than build out, she described it as a "fallacious mantra" that has been repeated by politicians for years.

"For a start, the 2011 census debunked that," she said, highlighting that "just over 30% of Malta's housing stock was empty at the time."

"Since then, hundreds of thousands more apartments have been built. Although the population has risen, we very much suspect that much housing stock is still empty. The National Statistics Office census is being released in drips, but possibly the most contentious element – the housing stock part of the census, has not yet been published. One could ask why it hasn’t? Invariably, it would indicate that it's not in the interest of developers to reveal the figure. The most pressing need is neither build up or build out, but to restore old buildings and redevelop substandard ones, however, most developers are only interested in making a quick buck."

In addition, she said that building up is not the environmental solution that it's been thought to be. "Building up is not very green. Taller buildings depend more on electricity to run lifts, heating and cooling, as the higher you go the more exposed one is to heat and cold due to exposure. So apartments at higher levels have a higher consumption of energy for heating in winter and especially to air-conditioning in summer, which throws hot air into the surrounding streets, causing an urban heat island effect. So these are not the solution that they were purported to be when they were first built.”

She said that the need to build up was created by developers who fetch a higher price for apartments located higher up commanding better views. "So tall buildings are very much in their interest. It is often said 'we could build more apartments in a traditional low style rather than building high', but there is much more profit to be made by selling off luxury apartments at a height."

Asked whether her solution would be to build out instead, she said there is no need to do so, and advocates for the redevelopment of existing buildings instead, "especially substandard buildings".

"There is enough work to be found there for Malta's contractors. FAA has tried to promote the idea for government to organise the free retraining of construction workers on restoration, redevelopment and refitting to meet new climate change building standards. That is what we need, or are we going to continue on with the current slash and burn policy, where we just abandon the old and move on to burn new pastures? That is what we're doing at the moment, burning Malta up in this way. This is what the protest is about. It is also about the aesthetics of buildings and the effect that the congestion of buildings has on our mental and physical health, the ugliness of the buildings being built, the mediocrity in architecture. Before the last election Prime Minister Robert Abela repeatedly mentioned that we must give more importance to aesthetics. Immediately after the election, this message was promptly forgotten."

Many of the plans filed with the Planning Authority are "more mediocre than the housing estates of the 1970s that we used to deplore as the lowest form of architecture", she said. "The applications we see now are devoid of any effort to enhance a building and even more devoid of any effort on the part of the architect to fit into the context. This is what we deplore."

Asked what changes she would make in terms of planning, she would immediately strike the Annex 2 provisions from the book. These are the provisions that allow for buildings to rise higher, she said. “It is what is ruining our towns and villages, as buildings that were previously three floors can now rise to five floors plus a penthouse, ruining streetscapes with pencil buildings and depriving neighbours of light, air and sun on solar panels.”

The protest will also demand an economic model that seeks to better quality of life, rather than the endless economic growth based on the profits of the few, she said.

She urged people to come out and join the protest. 

"It's not enough to be a keyboard warrior. It's not enough to grumble on Facebook, under media articles, or in social circles. Come out, join the protest and bring your family and friends. Now is the time to get off our sofas and make our presence felt. Now is the time to stand up and be counted."

The protest is set to take place on Saturday, 27 May, starting from the Triton Fountain at 10.30am.

The organisations behind the protest are Moviment Graffitti, Friends of the Earth Malta, Flimkien għal Ambjent Aħjar, Din l-Art Ħelwa, Nature Trust Malta-FEE, Għawdix, BirdLife Malta and Ramblers’ Association Malta.

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