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Good land use planning

Facing a spate of planning applications to open more fuel stations, the Minister for the Environment has ordered a review of the controversial Planning Authority’s fuel stations policy to address “the burden such developments are posing on important agricultural or ecological land”.

There are 69 fuel stations in Malta and another eight in Gozo. In Malta, a petrol station is to be found every 4.1 square kilometres while Gozo “enjoys” a petrol station every eight square kilometres.

If ever the crying need for a comprehensive land-use policy in Malta and Gozo is to be addressed, the proliferation of fuel stations is an excellent example of the pressing requirement for one. Running a fuel station may be good business in this car-mad, traffic-congested country for those who are applying for permission to build one. However, they come at huge cost to the environment and quality of life of the citizens of this country in lost agricultural land and ruined amenity.

The relentless construction development of the last 50 years has led to Malta taking the dubious prize as the most built-up country in the European Union. A third of its territory is covered by buildings. That figure should be compared with the five per cent average of built-up land in all EU member states. Malta’s excessive building density belies the visual impact on the island as a whole because poor planning has left the north and east of the country consisting of virtually unbroken conurbation.

It would be wrong to ignore the context within which the minister is inviting the Environment and Resources Authority to review the policy on fuel stations for it is, at root, an issue of land use. The 2015 policy allows fuel stations to be relocated from urban areas to land outside development zones. Other factors being equal, one can see the logic that led to a policy of trying to move unsightly relatively dangerous, smelly fuel stations out of crowded urban areas.

Although the policy, as written, is meant to protect agricultural land and to prioritise industrial areas and other committed sites, like open storage areas, it has been cited in the approval of many recent controversial applications to place fuel stations on virgin land, rightly raising strong objections from environmental NGOs.

The ministry has acknowledged that while many of the proposals were in line with the policy, they “could be objectionable because of the significant concern regarding the cumulative environmental impact caused by the policy framework”.

It reiterated that the policy’s goal was to relocate fuel stations away from residential areas. But it also added the important rider that “the current situation needs to be put in perspective and this position [of moving out of urban areas] is to be addressed”.

One can only hope that common sense will guide the ERA review also to examine the fundamental issue: whether or not there is a justifiable practical case for so many fuel stations in a country of this size.

The roots of the excessive urbanisation of Malta are to be found in its abysmal land use planning. Construction development has rolled on unabated with increasing encroachment on the remaining countryside’s outside development zone areas. A start with better land use planning can be made by reining back the building of any more fuel stations.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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