PA policy that turns rubble into villas still intact five years after start of reform


The Planning Authority is still “assessing” submissions presented over two years ago, to reform its controversial rural policy guidelines a set of rules that led to the proliferation of pseudo-agricultural stores that later got the PA’s ‘magic wand’ treatment to be upgraded into villas with pools.

The intention to change the policy was first announced in 2017 by former minister José Herrera, when he expressed his “alarm” at the findings of a MaltaToday probe showing that the Environment and Resources Authority had been ignored by the PA in 69% of the approved applications outside development zones (ODZ).

Herrera appointed a board tasked with investigating the 2014 policy, but the formal process to change the controversial rules was started late in October 2019 by successor Ian Borg, following public outrage at a permit for construction magnate Joseph Portelli to turn a ruin in Qala into a villa.

Although Portelli later withdrew the Qala application, the policy permitting similar developments is still in place.

The only notable change was the appointment by former environment and planning minister Aaron Farrugia, of a new board responsible for ODZ permits, chaired by veteran planner Martin Camilleri, who has adopted a stricter interpretation of the 2014 policy than that of former chairman Elisabeth Ellul, who was transferred to another board responsible for regularizing minor illegalities.

A draft policy which plugged some of the most blatant loopholes was issued was issued for public consultation in July 2020.

But asked why the reform is taking so long to finalise, a spokesperson told MaltaToday that “the Planning Authority is assessing the submissions” received following the publication of the draft policy more than two years ago and is “considering a range of policy options to address the issues raised”.

In April 2021, a spokesperson attributed the delay to the time needed to assess the “voluminous” submissions.

MaltaToday is informed that one major difficulty faced by planners is how to avoid abuse by people posing as farmers, to get permits for “stores” enclosed behind rubble walls in pristine areas, without penalising genuine farmers who need storage space.

The draft which plugged the loopholes

Over two years have passed since the conclusion of a six-week public consultation on the draft policy published in July 2020, hailed by Aaron Farrugia as one minimizing development in rural areas and “limiting it to genuine projects”.

If approved the new policy would preclude the repetition of egregious cases in which the Planning Authority’s planning commission, formerly chaired by Elizabeth Ellul, approved the reconstruction of ruins, even rubble piles, into brand new villas with swimming pools.

This effectively excludes the extension or redevelopment of old properties which predate the introduction of planning rules, but which were not used as dwellings in 1978.

As proposed, the new policy militates against the mushrooming of ‘stores’ by people posing as farmers or who possess very little farmland to justify erecting a new building as farmers owning fewer than 10 tumoli will not be allowed to build any store.

Under the proposed policy, stables will only be allowed within the defined boundary of a legally established rural dwelling. The old policy permitted stables outside the boundary of rural dwellings.

And it no longer permits the conversion of disused livestock farms into brand new dwellings, or new tourist accommodation facilities in the countryside, by limiting agritourism to existing buildings.

Environmental NGOs welcomed the changes but proposed removing the automatic right given to ODZ dwellings or fronting the ODZ boundary, to have a pool. A number of developments which included ODZ pools have been approved in Gozo in the past few years. NGOs had also called for the removal of zoos from the list of developments, which can be allowed in the ODZ.

TIMELINE

September 2014 Government approves rural policy guidelines.

April 2017 Environment Minister Jose Herrera announces board tasked with investigating rural policy.

October 2019 Outrage on permit for villa instead of Qala ruin triggers formal procedure for policy change.

July 2020 Environment and Planning Minister Aaron Farrugia presents new draft closing a number of loopholes.

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