19 DECEMBER 2001

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Planning and development - a critical balancing act

Those involved in the planning profession often find themselves carrying out a precarious balancing act - weighing social, economic and environmental considerations in order to find the best possible solution in the circumstances of the day with the future in mind. David Lindsay speaks to Chamber of Planners President Vince Magri and General Secretary Tony Ellul about the profession and its chamber.

The Chamber of Planners was established back in late 1997 with the primary objective of grouping together people trained in the profession of planning. The profession has grown since then, when it was comprised of a handful of planning professionals who had been trained abroad.

However, now that post graduate university courses have been introduced, more planners are coming out of the woodwork and with this influx into the profession, there was a need to group them together and promote the planning profession and discipline in itself.

Vince Magri explains that, first of all, a distinction must be made between the Planning Authority and the Chamber of Planners, as many are those confused on the matter. Whereas the Planning Authority is a government institution regulating planning in a general manner, the Malta Chamber of Planners is there for the profession.

He explains, "Due to the importance that has been given in recent years to planning in general, a broad range of people often present "planning" arguments - influencing planning decisions - without having studied planning or having the adequate background.

"Being, in a sense, new to Malta as a professional discipline, there are many people who try to talk as planners. However, there is a whole spectrum of training and background required to be a planner. Although for example, there are many architects who are planners, there are planners who are not architects.

"We have geographers, economists and architects amongst our ranks who have done their first degree and then took up a masters or post-graduate in planning. We insist in our statute that our members have had training in planning, whether it is through a masters or a post graduate diploma."

There are two main scopes to the Chamber’s activities. One is to ensure that those practising planning do so in a professional manner. Second is the diffusion of the planning culture, which was practically non-existent up to ten years ago. However, Mr Magri is adamant that the planning culture is slowly sinking in and awareness is being raised.

Tony Ellul explains that at the moment, apart from those working in the private sector and some government agencies, many planners are concentrated within the Planning Authority. He adds, "We would like to see planners spread out amongst many other government organisations and private companies. By doing so, it would be easier for planners from different entities to co-ordinate their work, as they would be talking on the same wavelength.

"There is always this concern with co-ordination, with those asking, why in such a small country and with so many people knowing each other, can’t things be co-ordinated better?
"By having planners in these different sectors, the common planning background makes it easier to integrate other sectors of planning, rather than everybody just looking at his own particular sector.

"However, a planner is trained to see a wider perspective. In fact, planning is often a balancing act. You have to take many factors into considerations in coming out with a plan. There is no particular formula to planning and it is not always granted that the planner would always get things right the first time around. This process of resolving an issue or in coming up with different solutions to an issue requires training."

But, as Mr Ellul explains, planners are very often not the decision makers when it comes down to implementing a project, it is usually others who decide in finality. Planners can recommend alternative courses of action while identifying their implications, but it is usually the politician or developer who would decide which course to take. Planners take on more of a consultative role, advising on the course of action and on its inherent implications.

This, Mr Ellul explains, is sometimes a concern. "I remember a stance that we had taken a couple months ago, in which "planners" had been criticised on why certain actions had been taken. However, planners suggest possible routes of development, but the decisions are taken by someone else.

"The recommendation of the planner could also be changed due to various reasons and the end result would have passed through different filters."

Mr Magri elaborates, "In fact, if you take the situation of planners working at the PA, one must be aware of the difference between the planning directorate and the PA board. The planners working in the directorate might forward certain recommendations, but then it is obviously up to the decision makers within the PA, the board, whether to adopt those recommendations or not.

"However, decision makers sometimes tend to extract parts of different planning options and utilise only the ones they find appealing. This is because a planner might be presenting a number of options based on certain planning criteria and, generally speaking, they would take one piece of one solution from here, another from there and the end result, from a planning point of view, would not make much sense. It must be borne in mind that each plan is a balancing act."

Balancing environmental concerns with the need for development is not always easy, as Mr Ellul explains, "There has been criticism over a lack of consideration for the environment. However, you have to be careful not to go to the other extreme, in which the environment is everything. Of course the environment plays a very important role in the planning profession, but it also has to be balanced with social and economic considerations. This balancing act has always to remain present.

"At one point in time it might be that, yes, we would have to give a great deal of emphasis to the environment, but we also have to bear in mind that without economic activities, the environment might not be there. If people don’t manage to make a living, they would start thinking about survival issues at the expense of the environment. There is no doubt that each case has to be seen on its own individual merits.

"Planners are not "environmentalists", although they tend to be seen as being more pro-environment. It’s a question of trying to find the best solution. If certain development is necessary and land needs to be taken up for this end, the planner will not hesitate to make the recommendation, obviously with certain constraints. But the difference is that rather than seeing land as a resource that is up for grabs, there is a process in determining its best use. The land is not there to be financially exploited to the full - that may be the developer’s perspective. Then there would be the stance of the environmentalist who may state that unconditionally that particular land parcel should not be developed."

The problem, Mr Magri explains, lies in establishing the importance of the economic activity and the weight of the environmental situation.

"Even decisions between leaving an area open for recreation or developing it for housing are, again, subject to different pressures in this respect.

"Unfortunately, planning today encompasses more of a reactive attitude. This is due to years of not planning for certain problems such as traffic, pollution, and lack of open space. So we’re reacting to these problems. If we had to plan ahead for the future, it might be much easier rather than reacting to existing problems.

"For example, one might have to decide on a farm that was there 50 years ago and residences grew around it. Now the residents are complaining about the farm. These are the realities that we deal with.

"Through our contacts with other planners abroad, we can say that they acknowledge that planning in Malta is a very difficult job because the pressures for development and environmental considerations are so intense that the balancing act becomes very delicate. Whatever recommendation the planner makes, he is bound to upset someone."

Mr Ellul adds, "One tries to arrive at a compromise but sometimes that compromise is not always a win-win situation. But has to see the overall result, such as the Armier boathouses for example, where finally government took some form of decision. Now the environmental groups say remove them all, the planners would recognise the reality of the situation - - that there is an activity - and they would attempt to organise it, instead of leaving it as a shanty town."

Considering the spatial limitations of the Island, Mr Magri says that building higher is a solution in some cases, but each case must be weighed on its own merits.

He explains, "Building higher is one of the options, but we have always tended to go for just one solution, when in fact there are many potential solutions at hand. In specific instances where it is possible, yes, building higher would be the solution. However, another part of the solution would be to utilise vacant stock, for example. So sometimes there is no single solution, what is needed is a number of initiatives; and planning initiatives on there own, however, are not enough. So what is the right solution? Again, each case must be taken into consideration on its own merits.

"Straightforward policies are difficult to achieve in planning, but you can get policies that give incentives in a general manner. Take the overall process to rejuvenate town centres, for example. It’s not just the PA that needs to do the work, in this case in giving permits. That is part of it, of course. But there are other agencies that also need to help. Fiscal incentives need to be given and certain activities need promoting -- these are all interrelated in a mesh. It’s useless having one agency on its own acting in a specific direction unless you have the others also working toward the same end."

Mr Ellul adds, "That is why we promote the diffusion of the planning culture, because if there are planners in these different agencies which need to be synchronised, planners at different yet involved agencies would be better tuned in to each other’s mindset.

"In the sectors in which other planners exist at the moment, communication is improving. Where planners are non-existent, it is sometimes are tough task to get people to agree."

However, Mr Magri warns that the impression that planners would solve all problems is erroneous. "The challenges would still remain there, planners will continue to come up with solutions, which might not always be the best solutions, but given the way we are trained to think in a wider perspective, there is more of a chance of getting a better solution to the problem. It is very difficult to get people to think from a futuristic point of view.

"People tend to look at what happens today and maybe what will happen six months from now, but they rarely look further ahead than that. If you are planning for 10 years ahead, you aren’t really focusing on the details of six months from now."

Mr Ellul interjects, "With this type of mentality, certain institutions feel that because of planning a project is being put in a straightjacket and that we’re not going to be flexible. So sometimes departments would resist the idea of committing themselves to a plan.

"However, a plan is flexible. You don’t just make a 10-year plan and not budge from it. Things change and we adapt to those changes. We need this long-term approach, especially coming back to the use of resources and the environment. If, for example, tourism is going to continue being a major player in the economy, obviously we need to maintain our environmental resources. If you lose them through short-term gains, then ten years down the line, we would have lost that resource.

"It’s a question of taking short-term solutions without properly studying the long-term prospects. It’s important to look at the short-term solution and see that it is ingrained into the long-term plan. We’re not saying to not take short-term solutions, only as long as they fit into the long-term plan.

The Chamber recently spoke out on issues such as the Armier boathouses and tuna penning, but how does it decide on a stance, I ask. "We as a chamber, Mr Magri explains, "always avoid going into the technical issues of a plan, we always try to see it from a planning perspective, obviously because we wouldn’t have all the details at hand. So when we do issue statements, we try to keep to the general principle of the issue at hand."

The Chamber has been pushing for recognition and has also worked hard on a draft planner’s law, which it has passed on to the government for consideration. The draft calls for the recognition of planning as a profession. In the same way in which other professions have a warrant, planners should likewise be given a warrant. It is not enough to have everybody influencing planning, there needs to be trained people to help in decision taking.

The law will not only organise the profession, it will also stipulate what planners are responsible for - such as the type of advice they give and procedures to follow.

The Chamber also recently applied for membership to the European Council of Town Planners, which is accepting correspondent members from EU candidate countries. The Council promotes the free movement of planners within the EU and supports training and dissemination of information initiatives. The Chamber expects a positive answer from the Council within the next few months.

The Business Times, Network House, Vjal ir-Rihan San Gwann SGN 07
Tel: (356) 382741-3, 382745-6 | Fax: (356) 385075 | e-mail: editorial@networkpublications.com.mt