Protecting our Coast: no political will in sight – Carmel Cacopardo

Our coast is under siege. It has been for a number of years and its commercialisation is not a recent phenomenon: this has also been going on for years.

The draft Paceville Masterplan, now dumped, did not envisage the protection of our coast. Its drafters and promoters of it – part of the Planning Authority’s top management -sought to facilitate the coast’s commercialisation, with the result that it ignored the Public Domain legislation, following the lead of planning policy in general.

The 2016 upgrading of local public domain legislation was just an exercise in white-washing that started with the publication of the 2012 White Paper bombastically entitled “The Public Domain. Classifying Public Property – Achieving a Qualitative Leap in Protection and Governance.” It was subsequently enacted by Parliament as a result of an Opposition private members’ motion.

There are clearly some teething troubles in the implementation process, troubles that will undoubtedly take quite some time to solve, until, that is, there is nothing left to protect.

Notwithstanding the enactment of legislation which reinforced and updated the public domain regulation and governance framework, after almost three years the situation gets worse every day. Requests by environmental NGOs, to proceed rapidly with its implementation have been placed on the back-burner as there is no political will to act. As far back as June 2016, environmental NGOs submitted documented requests relating to 23 coastal sites in order that these be protected in terms of the updated legislation. The Planning Authority has been procrastinating ever since, being as cautious as ever not to prejudice the interests of the development lobby which it scrupulously serves.

Protecting the coastline means much more than physical clean-ups. Basically, what we require is an extensive clean-up of our attitudes and the weeding out of ineffective policies. We urgently require a public administrative set-up that is aware that it exists specifically in order to facilitate the protection of the common good. Unfortunately, most of the time, the authorities in Malta send a clear message that their vison is focused on facilitating the plundering of everything that is administered by the Maltese state.

Protecting the coast and the foreshore is a measure of good governance that has been absent for a very long time. Its origin in Maltese law is influenced by Roman law which considered the coast, as well as the foreshore, to be public property and for the enjoyment of all. Malta’s Civil Code includes legal provisions which consider circumstances as a result of which the foreshore may extend as far inland as the reach of the largest waves, and that could extend as much as 15 metres inland from the coastline. A number of so-called “private” properties lie within this zone.

It is indeed unfortunate that the Planning Authority ignores all this when considering planning applications for the redevelopment of properties abutting onto the coast at St Julian’s. Three applications relating to the same site with an elevation on the coastline have already been approved, while a fourth one is in the pipeline. The old property has been in existence for quite some time. It features in old survey sheets dating to the beginning of the 20th century. In addition, an internal photographic survey available for examination on the Planning Authority’s website clearly indicates clearly that the property along the coast, just in front of the Carmelite Priory in St Julian’s is of old construction.

The development in question has been permitted on a footprint starting along the coastline itself. In addition, as evidenced by the accompanying approved section drawing, planning permission issued by the Planning Authority includes part of the approved structure protruding over the sea. Not even a whimper has been heard from the Lands Authority on the matter.

Do we need any more confirmation that the Planning Authority is not interested in the protection of the coast? The Planning Authority is now joined by a new accomplice, the Lands Authority, the guardian and administrator of public property.

The qualitative leap promised in the protection and governance of public property is nowhere in sight. Instead we are continuously faced with new initiatives transforming public assets into private assets. Protecting our coast requires a serious administration that has the political will to act. Unfortunately we lack both.

Carmel Cacopardo
Published in The Malta Independent – Sunday 14 April 2019