Planning minister pledges to fix SPED, but skepticism abounds

The planning minister has promised that shortcomings in the Strategic Plan for Environment and Development will be fixed when a review of the document takes place.

Asked about the Planning Authority’s controversial decision earlier this week to approve Joseph Portelli’s plan for ODZ pools in Qala, Stefan Zrinzo Azzopardi said last week that the SPED revision would address planning shortcomings.

The aim, he said, was to find a balance between environmental protection and development.

The SPED is the Planning Authority’s guiding document. The review was announced in 2020 by the former environment and planning minister, Aaron Farrugia, and was meant to have been ready for consultation last June.

SPED is the highest point of the legal hierarchy of planning laws and policies and supersedes all others.

Its aim is to provide a strategic vision for the environment, the economy and social development, laying down several objectives that should be considered in policies and planning decisions.

No local plans have changed except by piecemeal amendments to accommodate new development proposals– Din l-Art Helwa president Alex Torpiano

These include the sustainable management of land and sea resources, the protection of the environment and the development and use of land and sea space.

Planning Minister Stefan Zrinzo promises new policies will bring change.

However, NGOs accuse the PA of ignoring SPED all too often in its decision-making.

On August 2, the authority approved controversial plans for two large swimming pools in a protected area in Qala, which started being excavated without permits despite initial recommendations of rejection by the case officer.

Principles ‘deliberately misinterpreted’

Planning lawyer Claire Bonello cited several instances of the document being ignored or its objectives and deliberately principlesly misinterpreted.

“SPED states that a sequential approach should be followed whereby vacant land is developed as a last resort where no feasible alternative exists,” she said.

“However, when objectors mentioned this extract (and others) from SPED in relation to massive pools being sanctioned in an ODZ area, the Planning Commission simply ignored it,” Bonello added.

Alex Torpiano, president of Din l-Art Ħelwa, said the document contains several beneficial objectives. Even in its present form, it could be a powerful and useful document if “we really believe it”.

However, he said that, despite SPED, little had changed in planning policy: there was still the mentality that landowners had an inherent right to build, superseding the interests of the community.

Despite its legal position, “SPED is irrelevant in the context of planning decisions taken. It is meant to inform local plans and policy documents. No local plans have changed except by piecemeal amendments to accommodate new development proposals,” Torpiano charged.

“Other principles such as increasing green open space are also constantly ignored,” he added.

No communication with stakeholders

Andre Callus, from NGO Moviment Graffitti, called it vague, making it a straightforward matter to find loopholes.

The process of updating SPED started in 2020 when Farrugia announced a review. Since then, following a consultation on “general objectives”, there has been no communication with stakeholders about it.

Public consultation on draft proposals was meant to have started by June 2022.

NGOs and other stakeholders, however, fear the draft document will only be circulated for a couple of weeks, not allowing enough time for proper analysis and feedback.

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