Environment Minister Aaron Farrugia wants to implement an aesthetics policy “as soon as possible.”
The uglification of certain areas around the Maltese islands has been concerning over recent years, with worries about the design of buildings rising. To tackle this, among other things, the government is currently working on an aesthetics policy for buildings.
Farrugia was interviewed by The Malta Independent on Sunday. He was asked about his plans for the country to move from the current planning policies, towards more sustainable development, given that many would describe what is happening right now as overdevelopment.
In response, he spoke about having changed certain people in the highest positions when it comes to planning as he felt the need to turn a new page. He also spoke of a number of policies that have already been implemented, such as the change to the fuel station policy, which “completely stopped the construction of new fuel stations in the country.”
“We also created buffer zones around scheduled buildings and monuments.”
“Aside from that, we made changes to the rural policy, which was issued for consultation and is currently before the Intelligent Planning Consultative Forum for their input.”
The Intelligent Planning Consultative Forum was set up in 2020, he said. It brought together stakeholders in the areas of development, planning and environment. The Forum is Co-Chaired by Prof. Alex Torpiano (from Din L-Art Helwa) and Deborah Schembri (from the Malta Developers Association), he said. The Forum’s first task was to put forward tangible proposals on green infrastructure, which it had done. The Forum is now in its second phase.
For this second phase, the minister asked three things of the Forum. The first relates to the review of the Strategic Plan for the Environment and Development. “I want environmentalists and ENGOs to give their input on this,” he said.
The second is an aesthetics policy for building. “Malta doesn’t have an aesthetics policy. Different governments have protected the Urban Conservation Areas (UCA), but outside of the UCA, it’s like a no man’s land,” he said. “This is why I felt Malta should have such a policy.” Once the Forum makes its proposal, he will take it before Cabinet. Asked about timeframes, and when he would like to see this policy implemented, he said “as soon as possible.”
The Forum’s third task is to draw up variables for developer incentives.
“I understand developers. They would have a piece of land and in reality want to make a quick buck. So they would opt for the conventional development of 4 floors plus 1, build it, sell through the first-time buyers’ scheme, then purchase another property and move on.”
The question becomes how to incentivise developers to construct something more beautiful than we are seeing now, he said. “I have asked the Forum to come up with a list of variables, in terms of boxes one can tick, that would act as incentives for just that. Now it could consist of fiscal incentives, or a fast-track planning application for example. But I would like to see, for example, that if they need to build garages for their development, then they would do so and not pay the fine instead. I would like them to create green roofs, green facades, use retrofitting, install solar water heaters… We need to incentivise this. We cannot just ask them to go for the most expensive options. It costs money to build garages, to create a green facade, so we need to incentivise. That is how we are going to change things.”
Told that the idea of fast-tracking permits could be worrying for NGOs and residents and could set a precedent, he said: “I don’t think so. Firstly, the construction will still take place where it is slated to be developed. I am not saying that we would allow a developer to build where they are not supposed to. I think that the problem people have is with ugly buildings, uglification. That is what we have to change.”
“I believe that with the aesthetics policy and good incentives within the development zone, we can build more beautiful than we are today, as you would have green facades, among other things.”
Turning to overdevelopment, he said that since the 2006 local plans, nobody has introduced an inch in terms of the development zone. “Every building you see is based on what was decided back in 2006.”
He referred to the PN, and statements its members have made about the environment and planning, but said that the Opposition needs to be clear on what it is proposing.
Farrugia said he had tested the Opposition Leader, referring to when he challenged Bernard Grech to say if a PN government would revise development zone boundaries and building heights, among other things. “I was in Parliament the other week and I respect him, but to speak about things vaguely, playing for the crowds… I don’t like fairy-tale politics, I like real politics.”
He said that it is easy to say that there is a lot of development or that we want more green zones, but the question then becomes, “how? If the opposition does not tell us how they will do things, then the people will not understand them,” he said.
“To make a statement concept-wise, that there is too much development is one thing, but can you tell me what you would do about it? Would you reduce the boundaries? What would you tell people who have land in those boundaries?”
“There are people who have land in the development zone that they did not build up, but know it would, for example, be worth Є1.5 million due to development potential and so they took out mortgages. If a politician decides to reduce the boundaries, what would we tell these people? They would crumble, having mortgages etc.”
Before going into technicalities of arguments as to whether compensation can be given, he questioned whether the PN is saying that it will change the local plan boundaries or reduce height limitations, adding that it was the PN in 2005 that had allowed a height increase for penthouses.
“People come to me daily asking when we will change the local plan and include their land in the development zone because while their neighbours on both sides are inside and built up, he or she is not inside it.”
“The Maltese people are divided. There are those who want their land to be included in the development zone, others who want to reduce boundaries.”
The minister was asked whether he would give the Environment and Resources Authority (ERA) a veto within the Planning Authority.
“Right now I wouldn’t,” he said. “The government, till today, does not have that direction. I am following the electoral manifesto and that is the mandate the people gave us. I feel that something like that would need to be in an electoral manifesto, for the Maltese people to decide what kind of government they want.”
He was asked why he wouldn’t do this, if his aim is to make the environment a priority, or at the very least give the ERA the ability to say absolutely no to projects in certain areas.
“We as a government decided that while giving all the space to the ERA, the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage, Transport Malta and others to make their recommendations, you would then have an entity to decide – the Planning Authority – if a project is approved or not. I’m going to be clear, there are projects about which the ERA says it is not comfortable and they are still approved. For example you would have industrial projects which can be controversial. What will the government do? How will it decide? Will it kill the project? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. But today the people know where they stand with the PL government. They know that the ERA, the local councils do not have a veto. People know where they stand with Aaron Farrugia and the PL government. Where do the people stand with the PN?”
He said that saying the ERA is toothless or that you want to give local councils a stronger voice is not enough, and that the ‘how’ has to be answered.
This is part of the test he had given to the Opposition Leader, he said. “While the people know where they stand with Aaron Farrugia and the government, they also need to know where the Opposition stands.” He spoke of the need for the PN to say what tangible changes they are proposing.
Asked whether he would want such a proposal included in the electoral manifesto, he said that it is something that is being discussed within the party sphere. He said that the country is moving towards a general election and the PL is preparing its manifesto. “One will make recommendations there. We have many recommendations and I like to say that what we have achieved so far is just a small part of what we want to do. The energy, vision is there. The changes we needed to make are there. I pass on the recommendations to the PL and they will then decide whether they should take them on board or not.”
Asked if that is a yes or a no, he said that currently the SPED review is ongoing. “I want to see what results the SPED will give, as it is undertaking tangible studies in terms of what the demographics of the country will be for example. You would not decide to change the local plans for example without knowing where you would want to take the country. What type of buildings would people need in 20 or 30 years’ time? What kind of economy would we have? Services based? Manufacturing based? All of this would give us a picture of where the country is at and where we want it to go. These are all decisions we then need to take together.”
The minister was asked about the removal of mature trees, and them being replaced by saplings due to projects taking place. “Ideally you would keep the mature tree, but the argument goes back to whether the project will take place or not.”
“If there is a major project and there are four mature trees that cannot remain where they are – either due to the project itself or due to the danger to people they can cause – then one needs to make a decision.” The choice would be whether to go through with the project and remove the trees or not, he said
He said that where possible, trees are transplanted with entities even trying to pick the best time of year for the highest survival rate, but admitted not all survive. “Having said that, this ministry and Ambjent Malta planted a record number of trees in 2020 – 22,000 trees. Over and above this, Infrastructure Malta is also obliged to plant trees,” he said.
The Malta Developers Association recently said that it is holding intense discussions with government on the issue of dumping of construction and demolition waste, which is causing a major stalling of progress in the construction industry across the country.
Asked how he intends to solve the problem, the minister said that Malta has the polluter pays principle. He said that the industry must be the ones to handle where it would get rid of such waste. He said, however, that he had met with quarry owners last year. “When they told me that there is no place left where to dump, I had convinced them to reopen under condition that they take in the material at €12 per tonne and we had given them a good tax incentive.”
“Now they’ve told us that there is no space left where to dump that waste again. They are also telling us that the prices are rising.” He said that the government does not do price control.
The government received proposals from a number of people suggesting that the government ‘opens up the sea’. “The British had found a spot and dumped inert waste. There are some who suggest doing that, but I personally do not want to do that.”
Having said that, he added that there are projects that can be done on the sea, like Portomaso had, and he would entertain them, “but I do not want the norm to be for construction waste to be dumped at sea. I am ready to sit down with quarry operators and discuss long-term solutions.”
Then there are others who say that quarry owners want to extend their quarries to take more minerals and that, once the quarry is refilled with construction waste, they would have the possibility to build warehouses or garages there. “I’m not personally against that idea as the country doesn’t have space.” He mentioned that it would be better, for example, for sprayers and panel beaters to move to such areas, underground, with trees then planted on top at ground level.
“If we are going to go down that road however, they have to meet me half-way, to avoid having repeat challenges. So if we need to sit down and negotiate, I will come with my own shopping list.”
The government has mentioned that it wants to introduce a second interconnector to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. He was asked why the government did not make this proposal sooner, back in 2013.
“The government had three objectives back then and I believe it achieved them. The first was security of supply. Don’t forget, with more workers coming to the country, with more factories, foreign investment and now with the electrification of our vehicle fleet, the country needs a lot of electricity. The second was energy mix, and this is important for prices and to deal with international challenges… The third was the reduction in energy prices.”
While not being part of his portfolio, he said that it was important for the energy sector to form part of the zero carbon strategy “as our aims are not only for 2050, but for 2030 as well. If the country does not reach certain goals by 2030, it will have to buy credits from third countries. We want to avoid that as the Maltese people deserve that we achieve these goals.”
Farrugia said that the government is achieving balance. “Not only through the climate change and waste management reforms it is implementing, but also through Urban Greening.” While continuing to improve rural zones, like Buskett, Ta’ Qali, he said the government is also refurbishing abandoned gardens within urban areas, which ended up closed off or which saw few people visiting them. “Aside from this, we are also looking at creating new gardens. We are currently working on five urban greening projects through the IIP funds.”