One year on...the new Planning Authority

April, 05, 2017

Johann Buttigieg, Chairperson of the Planning Authority’s Executive Council

2016 was the year that the Planning Authority found itself split from its environmental arm as the result of a demerger, but this upheaval did not stop it from making a profit – in the region of €3-4 million – for the first time in 20 years.

Is it just one of a number of performance indicators that we are proud of.

Another important fact has been that the pending caseload has been brought down, in spite of the fact that the Authority handled some 8,000 planning applications last year.

This is partly the result of a focus on internal processes – the development control unit was reorganised and IT systems were upgraded, for example – but not at the cost of governance. In fact, the public objection period on applications was extended and some ‘projects’ previously covered by the Development Notification Order (DNO) procedures were put back into the applications framework, ensuring that third parties had the right to object where appropriate ensuring fairness and transparency in proceedings.

Another major change was the automation of notifications to statutory consultees with entities such as the Commission on the Rights of Persons with Disability (CRPD), Transport Malta, and Enemalta, which was previously done by the case officer after ascertaining which of the entities was relevant to a particular application.

This used to take weeks and cause confusion at times. But now all 11 statutory consultees are notified automatically and it is then up to them to inform us if they are going to give feedback on a particular application. This makes the system more efficient and much faster.

The Authority is also tackling long-standing enforcement issues through a two-year regularisation scheme for illegalities within the development zone.

Today, people are coming forward to regularise their property within the development boundaries as you cannot get bank financing unless everything is in order. The fees are quite steep and they will go up by 25 per cent if the scheme is extended by a third year. Until now we have billed more than €3.5 million.

What are we doing with this money, one might ask? Only 10 per cent of this money goes into the coffers of the Planning Authority, to cover our administrative costs, with the rest divided between the Development Planning Fund, which helps Local Councils with projects, and the Irrestawra Darek Grant Scheme.

The Regularisation scheme is only one part of an attempt to really get to grips with the enforcement system. Another important part has been a concerted effort to persuade owners that it was in their interest to remove illegalities – rather than have them removed by the Authority at their expense through so-called direct actions. I am satisfied that infringements removed by owners have almost doubled over the past three years.

Once you show that you mean business, it makes a difference. For example, we gave a number of chances for 22 residential farmhouses to take action and when this was ignored, between last year and this year, we sealed off and removed the power supply for them.

Direct action should always be the last resort, but we should make a distinction between just ‘threatening’ people that we are going to do something and actually doing it. For example, there were 980 letters warning of direct action issued between 2008 and 2012 – of which only a few were carried through. No new letters were issued between 2012 and 2015 – but there were more direct actions carried out than in the 2008-2012 period.

I am satisfied with the way in which the demerger took place, even though it might have taken a bit longer than anticipated. In the end the result is what we were hoping for: two separate authorities with equal powers, looking after each other in terms of sustainable development and the environment.

Sometimes there are issues where our staff take a stand which is contrary to that of the Environmental Resources Authority staff and vice versa. But in most instances I would say our roles are complementary, not confrontational.

People need to remember that good planning does not go against the environment. Obviously human beings have always had an impact on their environment and that will never change. All we can do is reduce and manage it, not avoid it.

Even advanced societies and the most sophisticated and environmentally concerned states – like Sweden or the Netherlands – implement projects which have an environmental impact: take the huge amount of land reclamation over the last 50 years and which is still on going. You have to consider the best way to achieve a good social and economic balance with the environment.

Having the Enviroment and Resources Authority will keep environmental issues at the top of the country’s agenda. However, its presence will not stop development.

Our recent attempt to take a holistic approach to good planning was not well received, in the case of the Paceville Masterplan.

People did not understand what we were after. It is true that it showed roads passing through existing properties but there have been theoretical roads passing through properties since the 1960s. You do not plan for next year or five years’ time but for 20or so years down the line.If there were ever a redevelopment of that area, the road would pass through there.

I admit that this did not get across. The Paceville Masterplan put forward an ideal to work towards if there were ever the chance ­– offering incentives by compensating for buildings being lost by having taller height limitations for others. Those who had to move would get compensation through a better price or a better view for their new homes.But there was never any question of their being obliged to do so. We still believe in the concept of the Masterplan and will not drop the idea, although we will take on board the negative reactions.

The terminology did not help. It is an integrated infrastructural plan. We should have explained what the process of that framework would have been within the local plan.

The idea of a Masterplan is sound. Indeed, if we want to take planning to another level, we need to have these sort of plans – and not just for Paceville but also for St Paul’s Bay and Bugibba, and for Mriehel.

Development cannot be put on hold until a Masterplan has been drawn up – even at the risk of making decisions which would not fit into the future vision. We are not stating that everything that has happened is wrong or that everything in the local plans is bad. After all, they have passed through public consultation and parliamentary debate.

If we do not agree with them, it is possible to change them – although they take a minimum of a year to prepare and another year to actually get approved. But plans cannot be suspended: people have made financial commitments based on them. It would cause havoc if we were to do that.