Planning for the common good

In her role of driving for sustainable development at the Planning Authority, Michelle Borg believes that listening to the right experts as well as to that silent stakeholder – the public – will improve Malta’s quality of the built environment and help to steer spatial planning for the common good


The pace of socio-economic growth in Malta over the past years has resulted in visibly mounting pressure on our environment, infrastructure and culture.

Amid noise and air pollution, construction and congestion, we are witnessing the impact of urban development trends on the island’s spatial quality. Now, more than ever, mechanisms to introduce a sense of stewardship for the use of our land resources are essential.

Malta’s condition maybe linked to a disconnect between long term planning and demands for development.

Michelle Borg, Green and Blue Development Unit Manager at the Planning Authority is optimistic that “things might finally be moving in the right direction again, There are always many factors at play, but hopefully we’re now on a journey – albeit a slow one –  of increased awareness to  the benefits of effective spatial planning.”

Since 2016, the Green and Blue Development Unit has been tasked with the challenging task of mainstreaming issues related to the environment, climate change and the community within policy making.

“The government presents us with national objectives, and we try to steer the process of reaching those goals in the direction of sustainable development,” Borg said.

“The epic journey of sustainable development really started at the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio. Here countries signed up to adopt of an action plan for sustainable development for the 21st century.  The guide for spatial planning was there too, calling for an integrated approach to the planning and management of land resources. Malta’s long term planning process began at the same time.”

Spatial planning is concerned with using land efficiently to create our urban environment.

Besides residences, infrastructure is crucial, including schools, hospitals, road networks, sewage systems and energy provision.

“The role of the planner is to advance a country’s vision,” Borg said.

“The planner translates and informs policy to work within the country’s physical context. In Malta, , the continued progress of society within such a tiny archipelago is baffling for many, and therein lies our resilience. Yet, the balance between supporting economic performance and providing liveable spaces over time, is a dynamic one. It must change to reflect the socio-economic and political circumstances of the age. Since 1992, environmental quality has been placed on the same decision-making table. As sectoral demands influence national decisions linked to physical development there is however a constant risk of focusing on the immediate tangible economic figures.

“We must remember, though, that the Authority’s biggest client is the ‘silent’ public, the ones who never actually submit a planning application.  We are a public entity, not a private company and therefore we are expected to ensure that the outcome of planning decisions benefits the wider community.

“With Covid-19, we left it to the health experts, without any excessive debate because our lives were at stake. When it comes to planning, professionals with the right education and experience should also take the lead. However, because planning is strongly linked with high economic stakes, various stakeholder interests transform it into a highly divisive process, not just in Malta.”

In Malta, the loudest and most influential sectorial voices have long trumped expertise and effectively risked the dismantling of the planning profession.

And yet, at the same time the effects of the Authority’s evolution provided Malta with markers of truly effective town planning.

The vision for Valletta and the Three Cities that was encapsulated in the 1990 Structure Plan and taken forward by the Grand Harbour Local Plan of 2002 is being achieved. Skip ahead a few years and the area has been completely transformed from its previously rundown state.

“The vision of the rehabilitation and regeneration of Valletta was translated into the area’s local plan, which then triggered private investment,” Ms Borg explains.  From a time when Valletta was only alive during office hours, the planning strategy brought life back into the capital.”

Borg is acutely conscious of the Authority having broken the public’s trust in the past. Rebuilding that trust is a long journey, which starts with fully understanding the role of the Authority.

“It’s the Authority that started public consultations in Malta,” she said.

“With time, the public responded and demands grew. We need to grasp the opportunity and see how public engagement in the planning process of today can be maximised. Of course, every decision taken will not be pleasing to everyone. But not taking decisions will lead to stagnation. That is why we have improved our processes to ensure that the Planning Authority implements the requirements of the Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) Regulations in policy making. In recent years, we’ve worked to systematically screen planning policies in terms of their potential significant effects on the environment to determine whether or not a SEA would be required. The results are published online, a measure that increases transparency and accountability.”

Translating sustainability into its work is ultimately the Authority’s legal mandate under the Development Planning Act.

But, Borg said, “it is easier said than done. That said, we must remember that we don’t operate in a vacuum. There’s a historical context, and each generation builds on the historical strata it inherits.

“We can’t simply eradicate what was previously done to impose utopia. But what we are seeing is democratic, open debate and some progressive steps being taken to meet the challenge of sustainable use of land resources. This is positive and gives me hope.”

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