In 2020, one of Robert Abela’s first key decisions as Prime Minister was to re-integrate the planning and environment portfolios – which had been ‘demerged’, under Joseph Muscat – in what was seen as a bid to tilt the balance away from the construction lobby.
Many believed that Abela was signaling his intention to give the environment higher priority in planning decisions. Aaron Farrugia, environment minister, began on a positive note. He drafted a new rural strategy to regulate ODZ development and took other steps in the right direction.
However, the impression would not last. Right up to the electoral campaign itself, the PA was still issuing controversial permits such as Joseph Portelli’s gargantuan development in Sannat; moreover, Farrugia’s rural policy still remains in limbo, two years after it was drafted.
Nonetheless, these pitfalls were not caused directly by Abela’s decision to remerge environment with planning. Farrugia was less willing to scrap planning rules that facilitate urban development; or anything that might prevent more construction on the island in general.
It makes no sense to return the situation to the way it was before, as Abela seems not to have done.
In Abela’s new cabinet, the planning sector will now get its own ministry, headed by Stefan Zrinzo Azzopardi, whose portfolio also includes ‘public works’, but – significantly – not major infrastructural and capital projects, which now fall under the responsibility of Aaron Farrugia himself.
On one level, this will ensure that Zrinzo Azzopardi’s main focus will indeed be on the planning sector. This may indicate that planning reforms will be a priority of the new administration. However, Zrinzo is still an unknown quantity.
The question is: Will he create his own identity as minister who finally restructured the planning sector and put an end to abuses once for all? Or will he simply act as Abela’s ‘Yes Man’, in such a sensitive sector?
If it is the former, how will the new minister strike a balance, in a sector where Labour is caught between ever-increasing resistance by local communities – even in its own heartlands – and, on the other hand, powerful lobby groups which curry favour in the halls of power?
Zrinzo will not be under the same pressure as Aaron Farrugia to control the planning sector, since he has no actual responsibility for the environment. It is always easier to find an environment minister responsible for planning misdeeds when that minister is politically accountable for the environment.
However, when the minister is not legally required to deliver on the environment front, it becomes difficult to determine if there is any political culpability.
It is still too early to know how Zrinzo will adjust to the new role. But one key issue bound to test Labour’s environmental credentials, will surely be that of land reclamation: a decision which has implications not just on planning, but also on marine ecology and infrastructure.
However, the chain of ministerial commands is not clear. This sector appears to be divided between no fewer that three ministries: Miriam Dalli who is now responsible ERA; Aaron Farrugia whose portfolio includes Projects Malta; Zrinzo Azopardi, as PA will still need to set the planning parameters.
Not only is land reclamation not the only area that should be shared between ministries, Perhaps the most glaring change implied by Abela’s new Cabinet was the integration of environment, energy and enterprise into Miriam Dalli’s mega-portfolio: which – on the plus side – ensures a cohesive environmental policy with regards to climate change and Malta’s waste commitments, all in the capable hand of an experienced politician.
Farrugia must, however, fill the shoes of Ian Borg, former infrastructure minister. Farrugia will be coming from his environment portfolio and will likely show more sensitivity than his predecessor in regard to the environmental impacts of road and infrastructure projects, such as the Gozo tunnel proposal; the Paceville road network; and the proposed flyovers at Msida.
In short, Farrugia now risks finding himself in the unenviable position of lending a ‘green face’, to the very projects that environmentalists love to hate.
Nonetheless, while Abela’s Cabinet choices certainly do raise questions, they suggest that his main priorities will be on delivering urban greening projects, and implementing crucial climate and waste targets which are intertwined with strategic choices in the energy and traffic sectors.
From that perspective, it remains to be seen whether Abela’s decision to have a separate planning minister will truly bring about any meaningful change in Malta’s contentious planning regime; or whether it simply betrays a preference for retaining the status quo.
And if, once again, it turns out to be the latter case: the popular disgruntlement that has already started eating into Labour’s super-majority, may yet prove to be its Achilles’ Heel.