putting the cart before the horse

by Alan Deidun

With the raging debate on the IIP scheme monopolizing headlines and coffee shop discussions, few might have realized that the MEPA Board recently approved through the slew of proposed ODZ policy amendments, despite the wealth of legitimate objections to the same amendments on the grounds that they will lead to a proliferation of unjustified developments within ODZ areas. There were only three dissenting voices within the MEPA Board to the ushering in of such madness.

The timing of such an approval is not judicious, and, anomalous, at best, since it comes against the backdrop of a policy vacuum. In fact, our islands are currently deprived of an over-arching regulatory plan since the 20-year-long tenure of the previous Structure Plan expired in 2012 and we are currently within the interim period which should lead to the approval of the next Magna Carta to regulate planning and development – the SPED (Strategic Plan for Environment and Development). Chapter 504 of the Environment and Development Act stipulates that the SPED must set out policies in relation to the development and use of land and sea, with the SPED ensuring that plans, policies and programmes issued under the Environment and Development Planning Act are holistic and comprehensive. The same Chapter also indicates that all subsidiary plans and policies should not extend the scope of or be in conflict with the SPED. So there you have it……by approving policies before the SPED is out, the MEPA Board is at loggerheads with one of its cardinal legal Acts.

The first draft of the SPED is next to being issued (the Parliamentary Committee for Environment and Development Planning announced that this should happen towards the end of February/beginning of March). It goes without saying, therefore, that the haste in rushing through the proposed ODZ policy changes, tantamount to putting the cart before the horse, is completely unwarranted given that the release of the SPED is just round the corner. It might sound like invective and speculation such anomalous haste can be interpreted as a scramble to allow a select number of ODZ planning applications (such as the 51 resurrected ODZ applications featured two weeks ago) through whilst the current policy vacuum still prevails (i.e. the SPED is not yet in place), with applicants being notified that they can now re-apply under the revised ODZ policy.

An uncanny analogy to the current impasse was witnessed over twenty years ago, in the run-up to 1992 and the unveiling of the Structure Plan, when a number of high-profile developments in ODZ areas, which would have gone contrary to a number of Structure Plan policies, were rushed through in order to be assessed under a more lenient regulatory framework preceding the same Structure Plan. A particular prominent school at Zebbiegh comes to mind.

Currently, the public is barred from viewing the ODZ policy changes as recently approved by the MEPA Board, allegedly since the same changes are awaiting Parliamentary approval following that from the MEPA Board. One concedes that this might be standard protocol but it also raises the spectre of last-minute changes being introduced within the amended policies whilst these were detached from public scrutiny such that the final approved policies are somewhat different from those issued originally for public consultation. What guarantees are there that this won’t happen in this case?