A year of firsts for the Planning Authority

Without pause, Malta’s Planning Authority has continued delivering on its core functions and boosting its capacity in 2020. For Executive Chairman Martin Saliba, the past year has proven that the PA has the right people, strategies and tech infrastructure in place to effectively adapt and succeed


Malta is not the same country it was in 2019. With new faces in Government, an almost year-old pandemic, a changing economy and a population whose lives and livelihoods have been transformed, 2020 has been a year of surprises. Throughout it all, Malta’s experience has underscored just how crucial effective planning is to a nation’s resilience and continuity.

Martin Saliba knows this all too well, for the end of 2020 marks his first anniversary as PA Executive Chairperson.

“It’s been a year of striking the right balance,” he said.

“I wear many hats as Chairperson. I oversee the PA’s processes and services, as well as our core function of processing development applications, enforcement, land surveying and mapping. I also preside over the Executive Council, where decisions are taken about specific applications and policies to ensure that the PA’s plans follow the Government’s national objectives.”

The role demands a significant investment of time and dedication, and more so after the rattling shock that has been COVID-19. “The Government took quick-yet-effective decisions, and we followed suit,” Saliba said. “Effective planning is an economic motor, so there’s been pressure on us not to stop, despite uncertainty about how the PA and our planning boards would work given the pandemic. Fortunately, much of our work is paperless and the PA already had a robust IT infrastructure in place. We were able to reshuffle our operations to a working-from-home structure within days.

“Making virtual planning board sessions legally sound, however, was a major challenge. We often look to other countries for guidance in terms of systems and processes. In this case, there was no precedent, so we led the way in creating a new legal framework and innovative operational system. Within a fortnight, the relevant legislation was passed, which was weeks before the UK made its own legal changes to hold planning committees online.”

While the learning curve has been steep, the PA has received immensely positive feedback about its online public hearings, especially from architects. Pre-pandemic, architects would spend many working hours driving to the PA and waiting until their case was brought to the discussion table. This ‘wasted time’ has since been transformed into hours of productivity. Architects, same as any member of the public, can at a click of a button connect to the planning board’s meeting from their desk and then continue working until their case is called.

“We have witnessed a marked shift in mentality about how work can be conducted,” Saliba said.

“This ‘new normal’ is here to stay because workers will continue wanting the flexibility of being able to work from home, and placing trust in our employees to do so has benefitted team morale and work has continued at the same pace. That said, we do miss our face-to-face encounters.”

PA Executive Chairman, Martin Saliba
PA Executive Chairman, Martin Saliba

In many ways, though, online meetings have enabled the PA to deliver on demands for quick decisions. The economic slowdown and increased uncertainty about the future have motivated people to get all their ducks in a row on projects that can kickstart as soon as the pandemic is over. “People with projects in mind don’t want to lose any more time; they want to be ready for when tourists return and investments can be fulfilled,” Saliba said.

“The result has been pressure on the PA to speed up its processes so that developers can start 2021 with an approved application in hand. But then this has always been the day-to-day challenge at the PA: balancing development demands with the PA’s policies that support the direction towards sustainable growth being followed by the Government.”

Reflecting on his first year as Chairperson, Saliba said that small daily wins always fill him with enthusiasm.

“Any time we make a firm, impactful decision is a proud moment,” he smiles. “This year, we managed to close some long-discussed plans, including the fuel station policy and the revision of the rural policy. We also made headway towards some major plans, including the site of the former Jerma Palace Hotel and the Marsa Sports Hub. These will lead to comprehensive projects that make sense economically because they are locations where investment can be made.”

“In Malta, we see too much piecemeal development that negatively impacts the island. The PA, therefore, tries to guide developers towards locations that could benefit from the positive economic and social impacts that comprehensive development could bring. With Jerma, for example, the venture could transform Marsascala into a destination once again – just like we saw with the waterfronts in Birgu and Valletta.”

Saliba is prepared for his second year and eager to see the PA’s review of its Strategic Plan for the Environment and Development (SPED) gain momentum.

“The SPED is our blueprint for urban growth and environmental protection in Malta, and this will be its first full review. We’ll be conducting studies on our islands’ urban capacity, society, environment and economy to understand what level of development we’ve reached as a country and where we can go from here. The question is, what is our spatial capacity for growth?” he said.

“Malta’s overwhelming construction boom has resulted from a large demand for property. This was triggered by the Government’s economic model and resultant population growth, and therefore a need for more space to live, work and play. We’ve seen industrial, residential, commercial and touristic development, and of course the Government’s own infrastructural plans have created an atmosphere of ongoing construction. The impact on the environment is evident and has attracted somewhat justified criticism.

“We also now fall under the Ministry for the Environment, Climate Change and Planning, and Minister, Aaron Farrugia, is keen to introduce more greening in development. So next year we’ll witness a concerted push towards green infrastructure, which is something we can all get excited about.”

For more information about the PA and its work, visit www.pa.org.mt.

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