In the media lull of a longsuffocating summer, a story broke in the local press that grabbed the attention of many. Residents in the area of the Queen’s Cinema were objecting to proposals by a local developer to build a tower block on the site. The objections were nothing new for a project like this. They ranged from concerns about the impact of the construction phase on already-saturated roads, to fears that the tower would ruin the views of residents of Gardiner’s Road. There was nothing unexpected, but the story nonetheless resonated with a wide section of the community.
This was the latest in a string of planning applications to generate a negative response and reignite the debate about development and planning on the Rock. Gibraltar is undergoing a construction boom that has largely divided public opinion into two camps. On one side are those who view the bustle of lorries, cranes and workers as an inevitable short-term pain in exchange for Gibraltar’s long-term economic gain. On the other side are those who believe development is out of control, that many projects do not necessarily benefit the community as a whole.
As the summer comes to an end, a number of recent developments may go some way to address many lingering questions about Gibraltar’s future. Behind the dust and grime of physical construction work, the Gibraltar Government has instigated a profound shake-up of the regulatory framework for housing, and set down proposals for new guidelines for development projects. This wide-ranging overhaul of housing laws and planning policy will set new parameters for the changing face of Gibraltar in years to come.
Development plan for the next decade
In August, the Government launched its much-awaited, and somewhat delayed, proposal for a new Development Plan.
Joe Holliday, Minister for Trade, Industry and Communication, said in launching the document: “The new plan will provide the framework for land use planning in Gibraltar for the next decade.”
“It also has a long-term vision and certainty on how Gibraltar will develop over this period.”
This is a complex, multi-faceted document that covers everything from how Gibraltar will meet its future transportation needs, to whether or not a shop in the Old Town can use sandwich boards to advertise its wares. There are key themes and buzzwords that are repeated throughout the Development Plan, which runs into hundreds of pages. Prominent among them are words such as sustainability and concepts such as environmental protection.
The Development Plan, once adopted, will replace the existing 1991 plan and is intended to guide land use in Gibraltar for the next decade.
It is comprised of three sections. The first is a written statement outlining general and areaspecific policies and proposals. It includes detailed policy statements relating to both the use of individual sites and on broader concepts such as building height and the ecological impact of development. The other two sections relate to the Old Town, an area recognised to be in need of radical improvement.
The plan takes into account the evolution of Gibraltar as a finance centre and tourist destination, and the impact that servicing the needs of these sectors will have on the Rock’s core social fabric. Among other issues, the plan factors in variables such as the demand for housing and transport infrastructure; the availability of land, not least given the release of military land as the Ministry of Defence redefines Gibraltar’s changing strategic role; and the vital importance protecting heritage and the natural environment.
“This Plan takes into account these different competing demands on Gibraltar’s scarce land resources and has created a coordinated set of policies and proposals to manage Gibraltar’s future growth,” the document states.
The Development Plan will provide guidance to developers and, once approved, will form the foundation on which the Government will assess planning applications in the future.
Given the intensity of feeling that planning issues can generate in the community, the Government has opened a two-month public consultation period to solicit feedback from Gibraltar as a whole.
The Government wants the new planning framework to be one that has the backing of the community as a whole, a plan that finds an equitable balance between the many disparate demands on the finite space that is available.
“The Plan will therefore be an essential tool in development control and proposals will be expected to conform fully to the policies and proposals contained within it,” the document states.
“As the Plan will have been the subject of extensive public participation it must be seen as a plan that has the support of the community.”
“Great weight will therefore be given to the contents of the Plan in determining applications and it is not expected that the policies and proposals contained within it shall be set aside without very significant reasons for doing so.”
The guiding principles of future development
In preparing the Development Plan, Government officials gave careful consideration to the many different and competing demands on Gibraltar’s limited land area, together with those aspects of Gibraltar that are considered of great value.
The plan aims to achieve a fine balancing act that will allow for the future economic prosperity for Gibraltar without jeopardising those aspects of most value to Gibraltar. In seeking this balance the following strategic principles were followed for each of these key areas of life in Gibraltar:
* Environment – to recognise the special character of Gibraltar’s natural, built and cultural environment and to ensure that this is not significantly adversely affected by new development.
* Employment- to encourage and provide opportunities for the creation of new employment and the expansion of existing employment.
* Population and housing – to ensure that Gibraltar’s population remains stable and that sufficient housing opportunities to meet the different housing requirements and expectations of the community, are met.
* Quality of life – to enhance the social, community, recreational and cultural facilities for the benefit of the local population and visitors.
* Transport – to cater for the needs of private transport but to facilitate and encourage alternative means of transport including the use of public transport.
* Tourism – to ensure that tourist infrastructure and facilities are enhanced, and to ensure that the unique tourist attractions are protected and developed sensitively, so as to promote Gibraltar’s attraction as a tourist destination.
* Shopping – to ensure the provision of a quality shopping environment for the benefit of the local population and to further enhance Gibraltar’s role as an important shopping centre in the wider area.
An important element of the Development Plan is an environmental impact assessment [EIA] carried out by an independent UK consultant in line with EU requirements.
The EIA analysed the various policies detailed in the Development Plan to ensure they complied with wider EU policies on sustainability and environmental protection. It provided input to officials working on planning policy and was published together with the Development Plan itself.
The EIA addressed fundamental questions at the core of town planning deliberations, assessing the impact of development on Gibraltar’s urban and natural environments.
Underlying it all is the complex premise: What represents the ultimate capacity of Gibraltar to absorb continuing demand for growth? And over what timescale is this capacity to be reached?
The EIA leaves little doubt as to the importance of the issues at stake and the risks of inaction.
“It is sometimes said that governments only take decisions based on expediency and related to what can be achieved during their term of office,” the document states.
“However, in Gibraltar, strategic planning has always been a key to its survival.”
“It is argued in the remainder of this report that the time has now been reached when bold decisions need to be made to establish the future direction for development, with a purpose and a vision that will last 50 years.”
“Failure to establish that overall vision will not prevent individual developments from succeeding but it could foreclose on the opportunities to make Gibraltar a truly sustainable entity, with a prosperous economy, outstanding environment and high quality of life for all.”
The study repeatedly highlights the importance of reliable baseline data in making longterm forecasts, but notes that such information is sometimes unavailable in respect of key issues in Gibraltar.
The Development Plan acknowledges this and includes proposals for closer cooperation between various Government departments and agencies to enable officials to collect the necessary data to enable them to make accurate forecasts on crucial matters such as population size, housing demands and employment.
The EIA makes interesting reading and, while broadly supportive of the policies in the Government’s Development Plan, draws attention to underlying tensions that will have to be carefully monitored in the future. This is particularly so in the case of protecting the environment in such as small place as the Rock.
“Whilst all the policies are generally compatible with sustainability objectives it has to be recognised that strong tensions exist between the protection of the environment, and inappropriate development and housing.”
“This condition is exacerbated by the restricted size of the peninsula and the demand for further growth.”
“It is important that the Plan counteracts a widely held view that the environment of the Rock is robust and can continue to withstand the same levels of disturbance and intrusion from development as it has in the past.”
“As Gibraltar continues to develop, the remaining open spaces for nature conservation and for public access will become increasingly precious and should be accorded the highest possible levels of protection.”
“The enhanced status given to environmental policies will increase quality of life on Gibraltar and will also help to strengthen the economy through the contribution that the Rock already makes to tourism.”
Planning for housing
Housing polices and proposals invariably generate the greatest debate and interest since they impact on every member of the community.
The limited availability of land means housing has always been a problem in Gibraltar. Historically there has always been a shortage of suitable housing to meet the demands and needs of the local population.
These needs, the Development Plan notes, have shifted dramatically since the mid 20th Century. Driving this shift are changes in the aspirations of the local population, most of whom wish to have their own home rather than sharing. Household sizes are also deceasing, with the average dropping form 3.4 in 1981 to 2.8 in 2001. Increasing numbers of single parents, higher divorce rates and longer life expectancies all contribute towards smaller household size, and in turn hike the overall demand for properties. There is also a growing market for people who require properties in Gibraltar for just a few months a year.
According to the Development Plan, the structure of the housing market has undergone significant structural changes since the 1980s. In 1981 the Government rented sector accounted for 65%, private rented for 29.8%, and owner occupied for only 5.2%. By 2001 the figure for Government rented had dropped to 44%, private rented to 13.8% and owner occupation had risen to