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DLĦ executive president speaks to Newsbook.com.mt on Malta's planning woes

Malta needs ‘mentality change’ on planning and development – Alex Torpiano

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The NGOs that are leading a national protest on Saturday have endorsed a number of wide-ranging demands, including widespread reforms of planning policies and the institutions that deal with planning and the environment.

But in the view of Din l-Art Ħelwa executive president Alex Torpiano, what is particularly crucial is a change in mentality.

Sitting for an interview with Newsbook.com.mt, Prof. Torpiano – who is also the dean of the University of Malta’s Faculty for the Built Environment – highlighted that street protests aren’t generally part of DLĦ’s playbook. But it is more than happy to join forces with others on Saturday’s protest, which bears the name “Xebbajtuna” (we have had enough): not least since its work makes clear that this name is an apt description of public sentiment.

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DLĦ actively monitors planning applications, filing no less than 1,500 applications – an average of more than 4 a day – last year alone. And in the process, Torpiano points out, it has received countless messages and emails by people who are clearly fed up.

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And the situation is getting worse, not least since complaints that were previously restricted to select areas now pouring in from pretty much every locality in the country.

There was a time when complaints about excessive building heights would only come from places like St Julians… but now they’re coming in from everywhere,” he explains by way of example.

Policies should favour communities over developers

In Torpiano’s view, a change in mentality is needed for both the politicians who steer planning policies as well as the entities that implement them: both, he argues, should see development as a means to benefit the community, and not an end to itself.

While Torpiano and the DLĦ itself have plenty of reservations about Malta’s planning policies as they stand, what adds insult to injury is the manner in which they are interpreted.

Any doubt is interpreted in favour of the developer… it should be the other way round,” he observes. “A development should not happen if the community suffers.”

This attitude, he argues, reflects a perception that construction is a tool for investment for its own sake, as well as the belief – a mistaken one, he makes clear – that Malta’s economy needs the construction sector to thrive. This has led to construction being favoured at the expense of everything else.

Construction has almost become the only economic investment, and this brings about a vicious cycle, with increased traffic, pressure on infrastructure, discomfort for many people, and the ruin of the environment and of landscapes,” he notes.

As a result, Torpiano maintains, addressing the issues related to construction also required rethinking the industry’s role in the economy.

A huge volume of construction is simply serving as speculative investment,” he points out. “What we suggest instead is that we look at the development that our country needs. We need construction, but it must serve as a means for other economic activity.”

By way of example, Torpiano highlights tourist developments, which presently benefit from a controversial policy allowing hotels to build two extra floors: a policy that appears to fail to consider the number of tourists Malta can reasonably accommodate and maintain high standards.

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A better approach, he argues, would be for Malta to ascertain how many tourists it should host, and not simply accept every request for additional floors.

PA has capable people, and problematic boards

The mentality issues plaguing Malta’s planning policies are perhaps evident in the workings of the Planning Authority, but the situation is not too straightforward.

The PA, he observes, has many capable people processing development applications and making recommendations accordingly. But the decisions are not in their hands, but in the hands of boards on which Torpiano is less than complimentary.

There is no transparency,” he notes. “There are many cases where the recommendation is not to give a permit, only for this to be overturned and changed by the boards.”

In such cases, Torpiano adds, it is not unusual for an appeal to be successful – thus effectively confirming that the planning official who recommended against a permit was right in the first place.

Ultimately, even planning officials are bound by the planning policies approved by politicians, but the spectre of another impact of Malta’s political class – political interference in planning processes – is also raised during the interview.

It’s hard to answer this question because I can’t know,” Torpiano replies. “But when a leading developer publicly states that they speak to politicians whenever they have a major project, an automatic conclusion can be made.

The impact of developers’ influence is also manifestly evident when planning policies are drawn up, with Torpiano bringing up the development brief for the former Jerma site in Marsascala as an example.

It is clear that planners did what politicians openly wanted them to do, ignoring what the community felt in the process,” he observes.

A system that encourages excess

All this brings about a system that appears to encourage the excesses of the construction industry that are drawing endless complaints and inspiring Saturday’s protest: Torpiano is, perhaps, uniquely placed to see this.

Asked whether he feels that the University of Malta does enough to impart better values on tomorrow’s architects, he concedes that it is one of the hardest questions he can face. But on the balance of things, he feels that it does, not least since students’ projects make clear their desire to raise standards. But as they embark on their career, the same students invariably face pressures to do otherwise: “the real world is hard, and I can’t blame the students for this,” he notes.

Torpiano even argues that blaming the greed of developers is too simplistic: if the authorities regulating planning implement policies that favour such greed over Malta’s heritage and the needs of its community, then one cannot expect otherwise.

Ultimately, therefore, Malta’s authorities must bite the bullet and implement changes that will prove uncomfortable – and go against the direct financial interests – of many. On this issue, he argues, political consensus is crucial: Malta must look “beyond red and blue” and pursue a different planning and economic model.

“We must change plans now, even if some investors will be hurt,” he says. “We cannot continue as we are.”

The Xebbajtuna national protest takes place on Saturday 27 August, starting at 10.30am near the Tritons Fountain outside Valletta’s City Gate. For more information go to xebbajtuna.org.

Interview by Michaela Pia Camilleri.

Source: Newsbook