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Why the environment will not be an electoral issue

Malta is currently bracing itself for the periodic state of suspended animation known as an electoral campaign when even the most level-headed citizens of the country lose their marbles in their quest for a seat in Parliament.

A few weeks ago, Reno Bugeja, who hosts Dissett on the national TV station, quizzed his guests about whether the environment would feature as one of the main electoral issues. Frankly, I would have replied with an outright “no”, especially considering several events that have unfolded over the past few days.

Firstly, there was the faux pas by Nationalist MP Tony Bezzina, which has done untold damage to the PN’s fledgling green credentials coming in the immediate aftermath of the launch of the party’s new environmental policy.

A construction site amid the dense natural vegetation of an ODZ area in Bidnija, courtesy of the Rural Policy and Design Guidance rules that neither the Labour Party nor the Nationalist Party want to change, so either way, Malta’s ODZ areas are effectively doomed.A construction site amid the dense natural vegetation of an ODZ area in Bidnija, courtesy of the Rural Policy and Design Guidance rules that neither the Labour Party nor the Nationalist Party want to change, so either way, Malta’s ODZ areas are effectively doomed.

Bezzina’s submission (through his wife, but this is largely irrelevant) of a planning application to develop a residence with pool in an outside development zone (ODZ) opposite Mdina may be in line with current policies but this in no way diminishes the discord between the application and the staunch defence of ODZ areas that the PN wants to project as an alternative government.

Claims that Bezzina withdrew the application simply to ward off a “character assassination” campaign by the Labour Party rubbed more salt into the wound by exposing the party’s chronic failure to understand the real issue at stake. It is not the Labour Party that Bezzina should be wary of, but rather, the unflattering way he has acted despite the PN’s ‘ODZ is ODZ’ mantra. In fact, his application has exposed the lack of appreciation for ODZ areas that most of our MPs have.

Truth be told, Bezzina is not the only MP to target ODZ areas. Others, such as the Labour party’s Anton Refalo and Helena Dalli, have even gone a step further by infringing planning law in ODZ areas.

Moreover, Labour MP Charles Buhagiar, through his private practice, still submits ODZ applications on behalf of his clients – the elderly home at Tal-Ħawli, Vittoriosa, is a case in point.

Submitting such an application conveys the message that the PN agrees with current ODZ policies, which were introduced by the Labour government in 2015. These policies effectively removed the need to formally extend the development boundaries since ODZ permits are being dished out round-the-clock.

The hundreds of small-scale ODZ permits being granted each year are collectively eliminating our unbuilt areas one field at a time

It also sends the message that the PN only sees red when large-scale ODZ proposals are submitted, and wants them to be subjected to Parliamentary scrutiny, but has no issue with the hundreds of small-scale ODZ permits being granted each year, which are collectively eliminating our unbuilt areas one field at a time.

If the PN really wants to receive endorsements and plaudits from the environmental lobby, it must propose an overhaul of the current Rural Policy and Design Guidance, which has opened the floodgates of development in our countryside under the premise of assisting farmers and agrotourism, when in reality, anyone with enough money to buy enough fields can abuse of the revised rules.

Someone recently drew my attention to the fact that a large ODZ field was on sale on Maltapark for the princely figure of €2.5 million, under the premise that it was “ideal for the construction of five villas”. Given its ODZ status, such a premise raised eyebrows. I duly contacted the agency marketing the field, pointing out that it is somewhat misleading to market an ODZ site for the building of villas, even if the site is just outside the current development boundaries.

The agency candidly replied that they were aware of this fact but said the owner was striving to obtain the necessary permits – and hence have its ODZ status changed – and that the field would be sold subject to permits being issued. One wonders how many owners of fields are actually hounding both parties with such requests. Given this sobering scenario, ODZ areas are destined for a rough ride, whichever the party in government.

The true extent of the current ODZ rot becomes evident when one analyses the number of permits approved for ODZ areas in the past 10 years, as provided by the Planning Authority. In 2016 alone, a total of 745 ODZ permits were granted, of which only 1.7 per cent (13 permits) were granted by the Planning Board; the rest were granted by the Planning Commission. While everyone is focused on the Planning Board, the real action is taking place at the Planning Commission, where hearings for individual applications last only a few minutes.

For the record, a total of 5,001 ODZ permits have been granted over the 10-year period between 2006 and 2015, of which just 312 ODZ permits were granted by the Planning Board. So the total of 745 ODZ permits for 2016 alone is much higher than the average of 500 such permits granted annually since 2006.

Since the PN and the PL are in communion when it comes to the current planning and development framework, with neither of them proposing an overhaul of the aspects being abused by speculators, there is precious little to distinguish the two parties when it comes to the environment. Thus, alas, the environment will not be an electoral issue this time around.

alan.deidun@gmail.com

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