Out of development zones and with them, our countryside and rural areas are due to shrink again, if, according to Dr Michael Falzon, Parliamentary Secretary in charge of Planning,  government carries out tough decisions to enact yet another rationalization exercise to further extend building areas already expanded in 2006.

Many of us believe that a truly courageous and tough decision by a government with such a wide mandate as that enjoyed by the current administration, would be to put a definite end to the extension of building boundaries, not to expand them.  The easiest way to boost the economy and keep the public happy is always to give land out for building, yet the toughest is quite the opposite and necessitates finding other avenues for investment other than use of land for construction.    I am referring to recent media reports regarding the further ‘tweaking’ of building zones planned by government.  These have been justified by the Parliamentary Secretary as being necessary in order to rectify the injustices and unfair charting of land which resulted from the extensions of 2006 and will be implemented by taking what he terms will be the tough decisions that are the responsibility of government.

The main responsibility of the Planning Minister is to safeguard the public interest in the management of land, Malta’s most valuable resource.  That of the Environment Minister is to see that he does.   The planning process being currently revised to update the national Structure Plan must afford the highest protection to both our natural and built environment.  The safeguards currently given to these by virtue of the perfectly good 1992 Structure Plan are carefully being dismantled to allow speculation, demolition, invasion of open spaces by construction and sanctioning of illegalities.  Furthermore it seems from the statement of the Parliamentary Secretary, that the euphemistically termed ‘tweaking’ of boundaries is to be carried out to correct perceived miscarriages of justice resulting from the 2006 building scheme extensions.

There is a great part of the electorate who believe it is clearly not in the public interest to extend the development boundaries to ‘correct’  perceived injustices that may have been committed against  an individual or group of individuals. That sort of problem is resolved through the legal system and not the planning process so this trite justification to give more land to building does not hold water.  The planning system was not created to correct injustices, the legal process does that. The planning process is created exclusively to safeguard the public interest and afford good governance for the common good in the context of a fully studied national Structural Plan.  If this is to be taken seriously, it will have been backed by analysis and research of social, economic and environmental requirements.  The new Structure Plan being proposed by Government, as studied by Din l-Art Helwa and as stated in its various submissions to Government, is not backed by these credentials. Certainly precedents and commitments to individuals whether unfair, unjust or not, cannot be used to validate changes to the development boundaries.

Extending ODZ boundaries in 2006 was a disastrous wrong and we are still paying the cost of this gross error as we daily suffer the inaccessibility to nature and visual oppression from the overbuilt, mostly unsold, and discordant, unattractive urbanization it brought.   A responsible planning ministry must also calculate the loss of land from numerous building schemes permitted with the new Rural Guidelines, a compendium of some 25 pretexts to build in the countryside.   To date Din l-Art Helwa has not been given an answer to a simple statistic. How many square metres of land are to be built in the next decade in hitherto protected areas? A serious study will have provided this answer so the public can weigh the consequences of the loss of natural spaces and biodiversity this will bring.

Expanding boundaries again is yet another ‘wrong’ to all, save to those persons who will benefit from political promises made in exchange for votes. These are two wrongs to our environment that can never make a right.  In his own words, the Parliamentary Secretary admits pressures from development are huge, and this is where tough decisions for the public good are expected.   Development can be infinite, but our open spaces are not.

Compromises, termed as  ‘tough’ decisions  are therefore always sought, disguised by politicians as that respectable search for balance between economic gain and environmental sustainability.  In every compromise between development and environment, it is always the environment that is the loser.

Din l-Art Helwa hopes that 2015 will see the Planning and Environmental Ministries wake up to their responsibility for the good environmental and urban governance of this beautiful land and safeguard its enjoyment for future generations from unscrupulous and insensitive management of its resources.

Simone Mizzi is Executive President of Din l-Art Helwa