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Bizarre development decisions

Together with NGOs, the Church Environment Commission continues to turn the spotlight on the defects, deficiencies and downright destruction of the environment by an unthinking government and pusillanimous ‘regulators’.

In its latest statement, the Church Environment Commission took aim at decisions relating to the Fortina Hotel development, in Sliema, Mercury House, in Paceville and the Villa Rosa mega-project at St George’s Bay, where developers’ greed and regulators’ weaknesses leave their mark on the environment.

The commission questioned the “muscle” of entities like the Environment and Resources Authority and the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage (which has consistently been starved of sufficient manpower resources). It warned that until these regulators were given a veto on planning issues, the country would continue to experience decisions “which do not give greater weight to the common good”.

The Fortina Project, which includes an extra five floors on the 17-storey tower and a new 15-storey residential complex, was exempted from the need for an environmental impact assessment after the ERA concluded, incredibly, that the development would not have the kind of adverse impacts that would be effectively addressed by such a study.

The decision ignored the social dimension of sustainable development principles – such as the negative impact on the local community – and raised concerns over “arbitrary exemptions” to the environmental regulations.

Sir Humphrey Appleby of Yes Minister fame would have been proud of the way ERA had played with the wording of the law and found loopholes when the spirit of a regulation demanded the curbing of such abuse.

The commission also severely criticised the decision to approve the 32-storey Mercury House development before the conclusion of the Planning Authority’s Paceville master plan, noting that those who voted in favour might well have been swayed by the developers’ sweeteners. As to the massive St George’s Bay development, the Church commission highlighted concerns about the fate of Għar Ħarq Ħamien, a protected underground cave, and was scathing about the way construction developers claim to be “redeveloping” property when the accurate description should be “the destruction of architectural heritage”.

There is a common thread running through the Church Environment Commission’s latest report, which is underlined by similar howls of anger from leading environmental pressure groups. The regulatory authorities, to whom the public looks for protection and safeguarding of the environment, are weak. They are regularly being found wanting. Does the so-called Guardian of Future Generations of Malta have a view or does it even care, given its lack of voice?

Moreover, as Din l-Art Ħelwa recently highlighted, the policies that should guide these ‘regulators’ are themselves deficient, incomplete or outdated. Local plans, which should underpin the detailed county-wide policy under the Strategic Plan for Environmental Development, are still under review. The rural policy is not safeguarding traditional old structures. The scheduling of historic vernacular architecture is well behind hand. The high-rise ‘floor to area ratio’ policy is being applied on an ad hoc basis without reference to a master plan for the whole island.

A combination of weak regulatory policies and regulators are wreaking havoc with the environment.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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