Sunday 19 September 2021

University deans issue joint statement on planning and dialogue

Prof Andrew Azzopardi, Dean for the Faculty of Social Wellbeing and Prof. Alex Torpiano, Dean, Faculty for the Built Environment have issued the following statement regarding the way forward for planning and dialogue.

  • Developing towns or villages without adequate planning risks turning our communities into miserable, intolerable and unbearable contexts.  The quality of our urban environment, within which our communities have to feel welcome, affects our quality of life. While planning may be a knife-edge balancing act between conflicting interests, if we do not invest in, and trust the outcomes of, socially-just forward-looking urban and rural planning, then we are risking the exponential exacerbation of our current challenges.
  • The well-being of a community is a complex and difficult balancing of interests of various forces, which shape private and public spaces. The conflicting interests become more complex when the forces have unequal access to the means and networks available for them to present their cases. Trusting in market forces to find the most socially-just, and the optimal outcome for the majority, is naive. Creating the best possible community spaces that maximize the well-being of all stakeholders, therefore, requires thoughtful and intricate planning, and especially dialogue involving national and local government and civil society, to ensure that the definition of progress is not hijacked by those with the means to further material, partisan or short-sighted interests. 
  • The investment in planning within the urban and rural sphere is no mean task.  We do have competent persons adequately trained to undertake this job, but they must be allowed to do their job professionally and without pressures. Competence should be ascribed on the basis of academic merits, proven experience in the field, and, especially, passion for the sector. Whilst the expertise of designated experts should be rigorously ensured prior to appointment, professional practice, during and after engagement, should be protected from speculation, sensationalism and retaliation. 

As Deans of the Faculty for Social Wellbeing and the Faculty for the Built Environment we would like to assert the following:

  1. Thoughtful spatial planning, and not the mere processing of development applications, is indeed the way forward; we need to continue to strive for the harmonisation of spatial organization, which ensures organised communities within the best and most conscientious use of space;
  2. We need to direct our efforts towards sustainable development that respects development zones. We need to be vigilant to prevent a recurrence of what happened in 2006, when an area bigger than Sliema was released for development without any vision of what such development could do for Malta. 
  3. It is sad that contrary to what was originally stated that there would be, there is no PA masterplan or brief for these areas, but rather the masterplan is left in the hands of the developer.
  4. We encourage the Government to invest in seeking, recognising, retaining, and providing the resources for top talent to thrive within planning roles.
  5. We hearten the Planning Authority and the Environment and Resources Authority to reach out to Civil Society and vice-versa, in a meaningful way, and find informed consultation mechanisms which really guarantee public participation and policy harmonisation.
  6. We need to embolden politicians to act in good faith and without any interference in individual development permission decisions. The wishes of, and the electoral promises to, individual members of the electorate should not be at the forefront to command decision-making.  Politicians should resist the unnecessary pandering of their ribbon-cutting vanity. 
  7. We advise that urban and rural planning should be the result of deliberation and stakeholder engagement with the inputs of various experts, to ensure not only that the best ideas are put forward, but that solutions and compromises will be sustainable in the long run. 
  8. We need to embolden the application of social impact assessments as a scientific tool that contributes to knowledgeable urban and rural planning.  Rigour is essential to ensure that an urban and rural plan is informed by timely, scientific assessments. It is also essential that developers are held accountable when under-employing social impact assessments, merely as a checked-box on the to-do list.
  9. We advise that urban and rural planning should not be siloed under one portfolio. Equilibrium is not possible to attain, or to maintain, by placing the onus only on the entities responsible for planning and for regulating infrastructural and material resources. If we are to accept the premise that planning targets lead to sustainable urban liveability, other entities (such as employment, leisure, recreation etc.) are also responsible and should partake in the planning discourse. 
  10. We commend the avoidance of knee-jerk reactions, but rather a focus on well thought-out long-term spatial planning. Planning should not be used as a political tool to placate the political tool to pander to the demands of a specific sector by adopting quick fixes and populist solutions. 
  11. We recognise that spatial planning is the acknowledgement that there are multiple phenomena worthy of conservation and protection, even if this sometimes means limiting the continuous-growth mind-set adopted by the market. Culture, history, relationships and well-being are all intangible, and non-easily monetizable assets, that are unfortunately most appreciated when they have been lost. Responding to current realities, while tackling age-old systemic issues, with a view to creating a brighter future for all involved, is the goal of spatial planning. 
  12. We need to re-fashion the Structure Plan that, by introducing, for the first time, a holistic view of spatial planning, albeit imperfect, had a positive impact on development in Malta.  SPED, on the other hand, needs to be radically over-hauled to become a more specific strategic document to guide development, within a robust monitoring system, and based on synergy with the major entities in the sector, namely Planning Authority, Environment and Resources Authority, Infrastructure Malta, Transport Malta, Ministry for Transport and Infrastructure Projects, University of Malta to mention just a few. 

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