Times of Malta, 16th June 2008

Sustainable development is on the government’s drawing board. In short, objectives for economic progress are to take environmental concerns into account and vice versa. A balance between the two is to be achieved.

Construction is one economic sector that often has a negative impact on the environment. Malta’s small size and population density compound this problem. It is crucial to consider very carefully how and where we are to build.

Letters on development and the environment are constantly being written to the press by an anxious and angry public. Many are complaints against proposals to build a specific block of flats, or a farm, or to extend a hotel. However, they are usually not directed at the type of building itself. People are not against apartment blocks, or farms, or hotels, as such. The problem is usually one of location. That is, build your hotel if you will, but not there. Build your block of flats if you will, but not here.

This discontent is the legacy of 50-odd years of inadequate planning in this country and today it seems that nowhere has escaped the mess or the madness. Villa areas abruptly convert into apartment blocks. Two-storey houses find themselves sandwiched between large buildings. Residences are allowed in areas designated for farms and waste sites, guaranteeing controversy and conflict for years to come. Cement is poured into gardens and open spaces everywhere. I could go on. Residents everywhere are fuming.

Understandably, tall buildings are especially likely to arouse strong responses in any location. There are many potential pitfalls and problems which these massive structures can create. Once built, tall buildings are extremely difficult to reverse for various reasons, most obviously when they contain residential apartments owned by hundreds of different households in the same block.

Some arguments in favour of going up vertically are valid but these can only be taken seriously if the horizontal expansion of urban areas into the countryside is strictly controlled. Unfortunately, in the same year that Mepa’s policy for tall buildings was approved, an extension of the development zones was also cleared.

Applications for buildings in areas outside the development zones are still plentiful, including plans for supermarkets, petrol stations, old people’s homes, farms, stables, boathouses, new hotels and hotel extensions, marinas, tool rooms, villas and bungalows. Some of these are granted and the list of applications is a long one.

Tall buildings are better suited to urban areas than to rural areas.

They are also more acceptable on low-lying sites rather than on ridges where the adverse visual impact is higher. Naturally, ridge development maximises the views from the interior of the tall building but the rest of the community must also live with the structure on a daily basis.

Unlike an undesirable or offensive piece of sculpture, buildings cannot be stored away and out of sight by their owners. Large buildings are “in your face” and their impact is felt by everyone, which is why good and responsible forward planning is so important for the community. Our landscape is our common heritage.

In recognition of these issues, Mepa approved a policy on tall buildings in 2006. This policy states clearly that elevated ground and ridges are not suitable locations for the construction of tall buildings “as tall buildings in these locations would be more pronounced, would have a deleterious impact on the skyline on a national scale and would dominate the whole landscape when viewed from low-lying ground”.

That’s a relief, you might think. Hang on, not so fast. Also in 2006, a separate policy was approved which identified the top of Mistra ridge as a suitable site for eight-storey buildings, when at the bottom of the ridge only four storeys are allowed. Is Mistra ridge different to other ridges, you might ask.

On the contrary, it is designated by Mepa as an Area of High Landscape Value and is specifically mentioned as an unsuitable location in its tall buildings policy.

A proposal for the re-development of Mistra Village on Mistra ridge then came before the Mepa board on June 5 this year – and how did the board handle the two contradictory policies? It ignored them both and granted 11 storeys!

By way of explanation, the Mepa board stated that 11 storeys is only a “slight departure” from eight storeys. Now please try and explain that to the homeowner who is constrained to remove a single course of stones from his boundary wall or whose plans are on hold because of a discrepancy in the positioning of a window or a doorway.

Scrutinising the details of planning proposals is all well and good but we expect consistency and fair decision-making. In this light, how are we to understand the statement that 11 storeys, and on such a large footprint as the Mistra Village development, is a “slight departure” from the eight-storey policy, or from the tall buildings policy, both of which refer to this site?

The way that the Mistra Village application has been handled is a disappointing example of inconsistent policy-making and inconsistent decision-making, rolled into one. The public deserves a lot better than this.

Dr Bianchi is director of Din l-Art Ħelwa.