With Malta ready to take the leap into the high-rise phase of its architectural history, the politician responsible for planning finds herself trying to do right what many before her failed: balance planning and the environment. As if the task wasn’t arduous enough, she has also been tasked to transform the Lands Department from an inefficient machine with scanty tools into a roadrunner that can keep up with the country’s economic pace and the developers who help fuel it. MaltaProfile sits down with Parliamentary Secretary for Planning and Simplification of Administrative Processes, Deborah Schembri.
Government was committed to using the demerger of the former Malta Environmental and Planning Authority (MEPA) to give the Environment a stronger voice in national policymaking. How has this been achieved in tangible terms, and has the separation also improved the functioning of the Planning arm?
We have gone through a major change with the primary legislation, which resulted in the creation of the new, independent Planning Authority (PA) and a separate environmental arm, the Environmental Resources Authority (ERA). However, I’m not in charge of the latter. The demerger gave more importance to the environmental sector: when the environment was part of MEPA, the environmental director could not appeal a decision the planning authority gave.
We have also implemented major changes internally at the PA. We set strict timeframes. When one applies for a permit, they will now receive a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ within 100 days of their application. We didn’t just want this to look good on paper. Therefore, now, by law, the PA must compensate the applicant up to half the amount that the applicant spent on the application if no decision has been made within 100 days. There are daily fines, which the authority imposes on itself. For instance, on a major project the fine can be up to €500 per day. The PA is the only authority in Malta that has such a regime in place. I think it is the way forward if we want to have more efficient authorities.
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You have also been tasked with improving the output of the Lands Department. How extensive is the government’s portfolio of land and what is your vision for the future?
When it comes to land ownership in Malta, the state holds the largest share of land. However, at the Lands Department we found a big black hole. We found out that there was not even a system in place to track leases on property that was passed on to the government by the church. There are millions of euro in unpaid bills, but even worse, bills weren’t even sent out. When I came into office, I realised that a revamp would not do the job, we had to change the whole system. The Lands Department will now be changed into a Lands Authority, mimicking the Planning Authority. This puts in place a whole new regime, a proper accountable system, with governors and auditors. At this point in time, the department has no audits. We are now going to have an auditor so that everything that goes through can be verified. We are also digitalising all the 150,000 files.
"When it comes to land ownership in Malta, the state holds the largest share of land."
Another problem that we are facing is that for 10 years nobody monitored the actual use of government property. Meaning that if government owns a field and gave it out on an agricultural lease, but the lessor put up a fully-fledged factory on it, we wouldn’t know. We are currently working on putting the IT system, as well as more human resources, in place to verify these cases.
The next issue was valuations. I get prices calculated in a way that I cannot audit. Because even if the architect used a method, it is not recognisable. We are now collaborating with a civil engineer who has devised a methodology as part of her post-graduate studies on this discipline. We are not re-inventing the wheel, we are just putting to paper a methodology, a system, which to date was completely missing.
We will also work on transparency, for instance when it comes to government tenders. Government land is people’s land. Everyone should know that this is what we have got. Transparency gives trust.
There is a wealth of land that’s out there. What parts are being planned for social housing and what will come out for concessions and speculation?
We need to get rid of this prevailing idea that government land somehow costs less than any other piece of land. We are an island and land is the most precious thing we have. Than we need to make a distinction between three tiers.
First: We are a government that has low income families at heart, and therefore there is a certain amount of property that should go to the housing department for social purposes. The second kind of lease or sale is related to land given to entrepreneurs who will bring jobs. Here one can give out land for a favourable price because of the spill-off effect. Third: If there are people who want to speculate, obviously, government is ready to give parcels of land, not everything but parcels of land, but then there is a competitive process so that government will get the best value.
"We need to get rid of this prevailing idea that government land somehow costs less than any other piece of land"
We have seen media reports stating that in certain areas the rent has doubled over a short period of time. It’s obviously tricky and you don’t want to interfere directly with the market, but can it be tackled in any kind of way?
The problem there I think is how do you tell private citizens what to do on their private property? However, government is trying a pilot project where owners renting out their property on long-term contracts will benefit form a substantial tax reduction.
If we look at planning, what is the strategy going forward? So we’ve seen beautiful renditions in terms of skyrises and the launch of the strategic masterplan for Paceville, but what is Government’s vision?
With regards to planning, a few legal structures were recently created or updated. Last year we passed a piece of legislation ushering in the Strategic Plan for the Environment and Development (SPED), which regulates spatial planning for Malta. We’ve also lately changed the high-rise policy for Malta and Gozo. Until now all of Malta and Gozo were amenable to high-rises. And we didn’t want it that way, we don’t want high-rises everywhere. So now it has been reduced to six specific areas, including Paceville, Marsa and Bugibba. Then you have the concept of a masterplan which is more specific. This all-encompassing plan considers traffic, utilities, waste and the wider infrastructural vision for a given area.
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We started with Paceville because it is an area that needs rejuvenation. We need to have the focal points of the area enhanced. We also have nine entrepreneurs who want to build high-rises, so we said let’s see what the entrepreneurs want, but mainly want Paceville needs. What is clear is that Paceville has been earmarked as a high-rise zone, so we can have high-rise buildings.
We asked international master planners to draw up this plan, and when taking this into consideration, they came up with the master plan which is currently open for consultation. Some people like it, some people don’t, because if you have to have your property appropriated in order for a street to go through it, you will not like it. I can understand that. I will not approve the masterplan in its original form. However, the idea is to do things properly to have the best effect on the area.
Apart from planning, one also needs to consider the element of aesthetical value. What is the current state of affairs in relation to aesthetics?
Unfortunately, Malta has gone through a phase in the 80s, which has been not been aesthetically pleasing. So we needed something completely different.
I advocated for the creation of a Design Advisory Board. As, especially in the urban conservation areas, I didn’t want a mess that clashed with the architecture of buildings that should be conserved. There is now a board which looks at all the applications.
At the same time, aesthetics are subjective. For instance, I like the older-looking architectural buildings, and therefore I always try not to impose my views, because I realise that every era has its own architectural significance. We cannot just copy the past because it’s beautiful and not create something for the future.
"I prefer older-looking architecture, but we cannot just replicate the past and not create something for the future"
Does Malta want to emulate a particular scenario? What’s the overall tone that we’re looking at?
I think that we have to go with our own. I don’t like mimicking foreign places and I don’t like how people say 'we’re going to have Paceville which is like Dubai'. No, we cannot be Dubai, we cannot be Singapore, we have to be Malta. If we have a skyline, then it’s going to be our particular one. We are not in the middle of the desert, but we have the sea. We also have architecture which dates back to the knights, and therefore it must be a mixture of elements.
Is Malta considering attracting international professional developers who posess the architectural teams and strong financial backing needed to achieve swifter completion times? Would you like to encourage more foreign direct investment in this area?
I think that Malta has areas that would benefit from professional developers coming in. When we open expressions of interest on certain parcels of land, we do sometimes get interest from international companies with their own ideas. Sometimes they join forces with local entrepreneurs and local developers. So yes, why not. Sometimes when it is a massive project, you do tend to get the benefit of the professionalism and the time-frames that people are used to abroad. Although when it comes to profit and money and time-frames, I think we’ve improved a great deal.
As for reaching completion without delay on projects using Government land, I still think that the first steps should be in the contracts themselves. Think of a mixed-use parcel of land: with residential, offices, and hotel. Your interest as a developer would be residential. My interest as the government would be hotels. So I can, and will, in the contract that I give you, oblige you to start the hotel first because it’s my land. I’m giving it to you under certain conditions.