24 – 30 January 2001

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Planning ahead

Autonomy and transparency were two goals that the government hoped would be achieved when the Planning Authority was set up in 1992. MIRIAM DUNN asks PA Chairman Christopher Falzon whether he thinks these and other targets have been met

What do you believe are the most notable achievements of the Planning Authority since it was set up and what still needs to be done?
I think there have been a number of improvements in the way the PA functions since it began operating. One of the developments that I regard as significant, even though it might seem controversial to some, has been the added interest taken by the government in what the PA has been doing.
The government has adopted a much more proactive role in this respect, and the proposed changes to the law serve as evidence that it intends to increase this role.
I am aware that some people question whether such involvement threatens the PA's autonomy, but I disagree with this line of thought.
I do not see how a Planning Authority can work in a vacuum and, in the same way, I think it is impossible for a government to administer without having some sort of say on mandates.
Of course, the government shouldn't interfere with the way an application is being handled, as long as everything has been done according to the rules and laws.
Rather than saying that the government can't interfere, I prefer to say that no one can.
The discussion that has been generated over the local plans has been positive and I hope this will continue. We need input from both the government and the public for these plans to be successfully executed.
Another plus has been the stepping up of direct actions. We have increased the number of enforcement operations, many of which have been on a large scale.
Two recent operations, in which action was taken against a large scrap-yard and a building in a village centre, are cases in point.
Although direct action is regarded as important, we have also continued with our approach of trying to reason with people responsible for illegal constructions, in a bid to persuade them to tackle the problem themselves.
Another important step forward has been the reshuffle in the way the directorate works which, I believe, has helped in the smoother running of the organisation and has resulted in everyone understanding better how the job is done. Overall, I'm quite happy with where we've arrived.
Of course, there's still a lot more that needs doing. I would like to see all the processes we have working much quicker.
But unfortunately, some delays and time taking are inevitable, simply because the process here is so complex. This is something that the public would not necessarily understand, since they only see the procedures from the outside, and I appreciate this.
Liaison with other government agencies is also still very weak.
There is not enough contact between us all and the government departments, therefore don't get the benefits that we can provide.
I think good communication fails because the whole system doesn't work as well as it should. There have been some improvements, admittedly, but we need to improve the administration of the country as a whole to really see some progress.
The legislative changes for the Planning Act, which are set to be discussed in Parliament soon, should have many positive effects, with the ultimate aim of improving the decision-making process.
Most important for the PA is, I believe, to continue along the path we have started, especially in the way the directorate works, and to also improve the quality of the decisions we make.

Are you happy with the level of transparency at the PA?
If there's something that the PA cannot be accused of it's a lack of transparency. I believe that the whole process here at the Planning Authority is as transparent as possible.
People are entitled to audit trails of how a decision was arrived at, for example, and they are permitted to attend PA board meetings. I really don't think we can do more than what we're doing.
I am aware that the PA is a sitting duck for such accusations and its autonomy and transparency are sometimes called into question, but I believe this is because the decisions it makes affect people in a big way and on a very personal level.
Whether they relate to private cases, corporations, industry or even government, the PA's decisions can make someone a millionaire or dash plans from an inheritance.
This is why the PA has to be very careful and make sure that its decisions are the most prudent and as well-thought out as they can be.

The PA is sometimes accused of coming down hard on the small fry and ignoring the big fish. How do you react to this criticism?
I accept that sometimes it is easier to act against a small problem than a larger one, not least because of the physical expense involved in direct action where a large-scale project is concerned. But we have proved that we are willing to tackle the big problems as well, as was shown when we dealt with the scrap-yard last week. The PA has also stood firm on the Cirkewwa project, which has produced a number of problems because it is a complex project in a very sensitive area.
We have not been afraid to stick to our guns when the need has arisen, even if this has made us unpopular. To an extent, that is the nature of the PA's position, what is important is that our decisions are the right ones.

But what about the major projects that have become caught up in some controversy, such as the Hilton and now Bay Street?
My personal opinion is that despite some of the controversy, the Hilton is a very nice project.
I accept that a little damage was done during the works, which was why the Bond was drawn upon, but I also believe that the problems were minimised because the PA was monitoring the project very closely.
Whenever we were unhappy with the operations there, the alarm bells were sounded and work was stopped. I am confident that this helped keep damage down.
As far as the traffic and parking problems at Bay Street are concerned, the idea was originally that the area would be pedestrianised, with a car park just outside the site.
The current problems have originated because the parking area has not yet been constructed, although a site has been earmarked and there is an application in.
I believe that in light of the problems that have cropped up, the government will now try to get the project going as quickly as possible and could even instruct the PA to treat the application with urgency.
Whether the project should have been delayed until the car park was completed is a difficult question to answer. The PA cannot make this kind of decision, but perhaps the promoters, who should have sensed that there would be a problem, could have decided to wait.
Can we learn from what happened at Bay Street? I'm not sure. Perhaps we can try to minimise the problems by looking at some of the steps taken abroad in similar situations.
There have been instances where developers were obliged to provide parking on-site, while the government also had to ensure there was more parking outside the project site. On paper, this sounds like a very good idea.

What stage are the plans for the new projects at?
The North Harbour plan is at an advanced stage now and will hopefully go out for consultation in a few weeks' time.
There are many interesting ideas here of what can be done to enhance our countryside.
My hope is that both the public and the government will come forward with contributions on the local plans and realise that the projects are much more than tools for measuring planning applications.
If the government takes up this plan with its ideas for leisure areas and country walks, I believe it could make some headway in sorting out the problems with the environment, which would be fantastic.
The Grand Harbour plan hit some problems a while back, but I believe it is now ready to go.
Unfortunately, the plans for the South are still backwards, while the Cirkewwa project has got caught up in a lot of problems.
I believe the way forward when we hit difficulties is for all players to work together and that is what we are trying to do in this situation.
But at the end of the day, the PA has a job to do. Our main aim has to be to do our best to ensure the decisions we make are the right ones.

The Business Times, Network House, Vjal ir-Rihan San Gwann SGN 07
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