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michaelfalzon
Michael Falzon

The politics of mudslinging

The attack on Beppe’s so called ‘palace’ relies on the fact that planning policies tend to confuse the ordinary citizen

michaelfalzon
Michael Falzon
5 April 2016, 8:26am
Labour’s decision to resort to mudslinging in order to defend itself from some serious accusations is the worst form of defence. Their stupid and hysterical attack regarding Beppe Fenech Adami’s house is no defence. It is just a silly ‘pot calling the kettle black’ exercise that relies on the confusion that exists in people’s minds about how policies of the Malta Environment and Planning Authority evolved and how they are applied.

Beppe Fenech Adami bought his house from a previous owner who had developed it with a valid permit issued during a Labour administration that had no planning policies and issued permits according to the whim of the minister, the late Lorry Sant.

The house was there long before the idea of limiting the developable areas of localities was introduced in 1987 when I was the responsible minister. ODZ – a term that has now become a popular term with an NGO protecting its presumed unassailability – did not exist before then. So Beppe did not build a house in an ODZ area but bought a house that subsequently was indicated as being on the periphery of the development boundary – on the wrong side of the line, if you know what I mean.

Again the subsequent construction of a swimming pool and the erection of a room at second floor level – all with legal permits – could have been not in line with current ODZ policies. But they were built with legal permits that observed the policies prevalent at the time. Ignoring the time when the house was built and applying current ODZ policies to it is the trick that is at the basis of the so-called Beppe’s palace ‘scandal’. 

More so when these current policies are meant to regulate buldings that are well outside localities and not those on the periphery that were subsequently included in the development boundary. Incidentally, the land at the back of Beppe’s house that he bought at a later stage is still ODZ and cannot be developed.

This silly game has even given rise to a sub-plot regarding the size of Beppe’s swimming pool, about which there is a disagreement. 

I am sure Labour realises that people will not vote one way or another depending on the size of Beppe’s pool but mud tends to stick and build up. Moreover, this is a cynical way of putting your political adversary on the defensive when he should be on the offensive.

The attack on Beppe’s so called ‘palace’ relies on the fact that planning policies – and the way they developed over the years – tend to confuse the ordinary citizen. Rather than educating the citizen, Labour opts to taking advantage of this confusion.

The same applies to the case of the building that Parliamentary Secretary Ian Borg is constructing in one of Rabat’s outlying hamlets. The story was pushed in the media by an individual who has some sort of chip on his shoulder where Ian Borg is concerned. But this is irrelevant. The relevant question is: Is there any abuse of planning policies in this case. For me the answer is no – as much as it is no in Beppe Fenech Adami’s case.

To be sure, I was at first impressed with the argument that a previous application on the same site had been refused by MEPA whereas this particular permit was issued. Again this comparison is not correct. The previous 2012 application concerned the redevelopment of an existing building with an external footprint of some 40 square metres while in the case of Borg’s application, the existing building features a larger footprint of some 100 square metres.

Why is this relevant? According to current planning policies – specifically policy NWRS3 of the North West Local Plan – only those buildings having an area of at least 50 square metres may be considered for the purpose of redevelopment. It follows that the 2012 application breached this policy while in Borg’s case, the building satisfied the 50 square metres criterion.

Many do not understand this but there is a logic behind the planning policy I referred to: in these small outlying hamlets, MEPA seeks to consolidate development without substantially increasing the population density.

Moreover, the Planning Appeals Board had issued a permit for a development on three floors on the adjacent site and Borg’s proposed development would visually cover up the resulting blank party walls. Such a consideration constitutes a “material consideration” according to the law that regulates MEPA.

Unfortunately the Office of the Ombudsman – through the Commissioner for the Environment – missed these facts.

And instead of concentrating on the real scandals and abuses, the PN opted to bark up this tree as well.

The politics of mudslinging seems to be forever winning the day. 

Nothing guaranteed... but

Simon Busuttil has launched a crusade shouting to all and sundry that his politics is clean and that cronyism and abuses will disappear once he is in power. All good intentions, no doubt.

This stance has been followed by the recently announced PN scheme whereby it is seeking to borrow sums of €10,000 in order to be able to restructure its financial situation. These loans will be repaid with a 4% annual return while the PN is being charged a higher rate of interest in connection with its current loans.

Since this scheme concerns real loans that carry with them a current commercial rate of interest, these loans are not considered to be donations and the PN is cleverly skirting the parameters of the recently approved law that regulates the financing of political parties. So far so good.

When asked whether the repayment of these loans is guaranteed, PN secretary general Rosette Thake replied that nothing in life is guaranteed. This is correct from a strictly legal point of view.

But...

I can guarantee one thing: the loan certificates will be waved under the noses of Simon Busuttil and his ministers the day after they are elected to power. 

And people will be asking for more than the 4% interest for which they would have a right...

In one fell swoop, the PN has unwittingly undermined its resolve to abolish cronyism.

michaelfalzon
Michael Falzon is a former government minister who served under several Nationalist admini...
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