“We can’t have five-star hotels and a one-star environment – that doesn’t work, and we will not manage to attract people to the country that way,” said Environment and Resources Authority Chairman, Victor Axiak, in comments to this business portal. “The protection of the environment, both for ourselves and to protect the asset we’re selling to tourists, is essential.”
Whilst the ERA has only one vote on the Planning Authority board which decides on development applications, Prof. Axiak argued it could still make its presence felt. “By being present you can put forward your arguments and influence the board,” he said. “There is also the right of appeal, although naturally we use this as a last resort. In a situation where we’re still finding our feet as an authority, we’re not in a situation to appeal everything we disagree with.”
Prof. Axiak was also asked to comment on previous statements, made during the PA Board’s discussion on the United Garage development in Gzira, where he said high-rises are being approved without consideration of the overall picture. “I personally have nothing against high-rises, and neither does ERA,” he said. “If they are carried out in a way which makes sense, they can contribute a lot to real development, not short-term and myopic development, in the country. When we talk of a high-rise or tower we’re talking about something with an enormous impact, which can be positive or negative. I think that in order to accept these high rises we have to plan for them. Unfortunately, we’re still in a phase not of planning but of issuing permits on a case-by-case basis. We need to plan ahead looking at different scenarios, with a sense of how the landscape could change over the next ten, fifteen years. An environmental impact assessment only lets us look at what is there currently, but not in the future. I disagree with the vision of Malta as a Dubai in the Mediterranean. We already have something which we can attract people to due to our immense historical legacy. Many business do realise that the environmental asset we have, the quality of life of the Maltese islands, is what they want to sell at the end of the day.”
Asked whether the country is moving towards this planning-based approach to development, Prof. Axiak said he believe it is. “The Paceville masterplan was a good attempt at moving towards planning, but perhaps we weren’t ready for it as a country. In the consultation process after the plan was presented, everyone affected saw their own part without looking at the overall picture. The overall picture was lost as there was nitpicking on different aspects of the proposal. Speaking personally, I believe we have too much of a ‘get rich tomorrow’ mentality, and this is the wrong mentality to have.”
Prof. Axiak also spoke at length about the demerger of MEPA into the Environmental Resources Authority and the Planning Authority, which went ahead in April 2016. “The demerger was very important – a make or break for the new environment authority,” he said. “The split however wasn’t equal, as the ERA didn’t inherit corporate services and we had to set up our own. Some good came from this as well, since we could start with a fresh slate and we learned a lot from this as well. The old authority was very much focused on planning and development, due to a number of reasons including how we looked at the environment as a society. Unfortunately, this meant a number of purely environmental issues were left to the side. With the establishment of the ERA, the new authority established itself as a key player both on purely environmental issues, and in the area of development.”
The environmental issues given a boost by the new environmental authority, Prof. Axiak said, include 30 new sites for Natura 3000, 22 management plans, and nine new marine protected areas as well as a legal notice establishing woodland protected areas and a national air quality plan.
What ERA is now actively in the process of doing, Prof. Axiak explained, is working to integrating environmental considerations in every government policy which could impact the environment. “This is crucial, and includes policies on hospitals, homes, industry or any other area which at face value could not concern the ERA. It’s important that ERA is involved if any management plan is being made by a Ministry or Government department. If we manage to integrate environmental concerns in every policy, this would help us move to a holistic understanding of the situation as a society.”
“We are moving towards this. By now we understand Government’s needs more, and they understand the need to listen to ERA because this ultimately benefits them. This is an ongoing process, built on mutual trust, which we have to work on. Our goal is to be consulted not after a plan is made and presented for public consultation, but during the formulation of policy.”