[ANALYSIS] Hotel heights policy: Babel or foresight?

A new policy on hotel heights sends contradictory messages, banning high rise hotels on the edges of the development scheme, to protect the landscape, while exempting from the same rule key localities like St Paul’s Bay and Mellieha in Malta, and Mgarr, Marsalforn and Xlendi in Gozo

The new policy on heights announced by the government on Tuesday allows hotels in development zones and outside Urban Conservation Areas (UCAs) to seek permission for two additional storeys over and above height limits established in the local plans.

It also allows stand-alone hotels in these areas to seek permission for any number of additional storeys but only if this is deemed appropriate by the Planning Authority.

In May the government had already approved a policy initiated by the previous governing allowing existing hotels in designated tourist areas to apply for an additional two storeys.

Now the policy has been widened to all hotels and foresees landmark buildings which qualify for an addition of more than two storeys.  Moreover the new policy applies to new hotels and not just to existing ones.

One significant measure which could limit the impact of the new policy on the landscape is that this policy is not applicable to sites on the edge of Development Zones which are adjacent to “rural areas”.

But this policy is rendered superfluous by the exemption of “designated tourism zone areas” from this rule.

The exemption applies to tourism areas in northern Malta like Mellieha, and St Paul’s Bay and Xlendi, Marsalforn and Mgarr in Gozo. All these localities border on pristine rural areas.

Marsaxlokk and Birzebbugia, two other tourist zones, also border on rural areas in the south.

Hotels in St Julian’s abutting on the ODZ foreshore may also benefit from the exemption. This means that ODZ areas, which are the least likely to see any tourist development in neighbouring villages, are protected from the overshadowing impact of development at the edge of development zones.

New hotels to benefit too

Significantly while originally the policy issued for public consultation was to be restricted to already existing hotels, the approved policy is applicable to new hotels.  

It was the Malta Hotels and Restaurants Association which called on the government to extend the policy to new hotels.

But this measure has also raised speculation that the new policy is meant to increase the value of government properties, which may be developed as hotels in the near future – on his part the parliamentary secretary for planning and lands, Michael Falzon, has not excluded this but insisted that the policy is driven by other considerations, such as enabling existing hotels to reconstruct their facilities from scratch.

Moreover new hotels erected in tourist areas may end up shadowing the foreshore or the surrounding countryside when located at the edge of development zones.
Interestingly while the new policy does not apply to Urban Conservation Areas, hotels shadowing these areas may still qualify for an additional two storeys or more in case of stand-alone hotels.

Onus on the developer

Surely the new policy does not give anyone an automatic right to increase hotel heights.

In fact the policy lays the onus on the applicant to make the case for proposals in the context of an urban design study through environment impact assessments.
“This will involve the evaluation of the relationship to the context, the effect on the skyline and overshadowing, the architectural quality, the microclimate and relationship to infrastructure”.

Yet conflicts are bound to result from any relaxation of height policies.

In its submissions on the new policy the Sliema council called for specific clauses precluding any additional hotel floors which result in the shading of the coastline frequented by bathers. Similarly it also called for a compensation mechanism for residents whose solar panels are affected by such shading.

“It has to be made clear that if a resident’s solar panels are no longer functioning in view of shading, then the resident has to be compensated”.

Policy Babel?
The new policy on hotel heights precedes the revision of local plans set for next year and the approval of the Spatial Plan for the Environment and Development, which is set to replace the Structure Plan as the highest planning law of the land.

The government justifies the approval of a number of specific policies before setting an overall direction in the SPED as a reflection of the present government’s pro-active and pro business credentials.

“We are pro business and doers...We could not afford to do like our predecessors, sitting pretty and talk instead of work... and wait for another 10 years to pass for parliament to approve the Strategic Plan on the Environment and Development instead of addressing all the policy vacuums.”  This was parliamentary secretary Michael Falzon’s reply to MaltaToday’s questioning of the government’s planning priorities.

But these policy changes covering areas ranging from hotel heights to fireworks factories, may well pre-condition the new structure plan in a certain direction even before it is approved by parliament.

Moreover devising new policies in the absence of an overall direction may create even more confusion in the interpretation of different policies.

For example while the policy regulating tall and medium rise buildings bans any such development in Gozo, the policy regulating hotel heights may trigger applications for high or medium rises in Gozo.  

MEPA officials contend that an additional two storeys over and above local plan limits on existing hotels will not result in high-rise development.  

MEPA official Sylvio Farrugia contends that applications in Gozo will probably be limited to applications for an additional two storeys over existing hotels in Marsalforn and Xlendi.

But standalone hotels in Gozo located within development zones and not located on ridges may still qualify for more than this additional two storey increase.
To this he replies that the new policy does not amount to an automatic right to increase building heights and MEPA may still refuse developments on a case-by-case basis.

Discriminatory regime?

Another problem identified by the Kamra tal-Periti is that the hotel heights policy creates two planning regimes, one regulating hotels and another regulating all other developments.  

In May the KTP also blasted the discrimination between hotels and other developments.

This is because hotels can benefit from height increases irrespective of whether these are surrounded by four streets or not.

On the other hand, all other developments have to be surrounded by four streets. MEPA has already in May approved a policy regulating tall and medium rise buildings.

According to this policy regulating medium and high rise development in general, only Mriehel, St Julian’s, Gzira, Marsa, Tigne and Qawra are localities where buildings of over 11 storeys can be developed on any site surrounded by four streets irrespective of its size.

It also designates Marsascala as a locality where medium rise development twice the local plan limitation can be considered.

Moreover in all other Maltese localities development twice the local plan height limitations but less than 10 storeys can be considered on sites which are greater than 4,000 square metres which are surrounded by streets on all sides.  

But the newly approved policy on hotel heights allows three categories of hotels to apply for height increases over and above the additional two storeys applicable for all hotels in the development zones and outside UCAs.

These include hotels which are sited on 5,000 square metres of land, hotels which are surrounded by streets on all sides, and all standalone hotels.

So technically a standalone 11-storey hotel set within the development zone in Gozo or Mellieha may have a chance of being approved but this is not possible for any other sort of development.

An over-supply of rooms?

The new policy has been driven by government policy and not by any study on tourism trends. In fact replying to the Sliema council’s call for studies to justify the addition of hotel rooms, the MEPA simply replied that the policy as directed by the government is to aid “existing hotels in maximising their economies of scale through an increase in quality tourism accommodation”.

But the Sliema council noted that the policy is not underpinned by any national tourism policy.

“There are no projections as to any increase in demand which justifies the need for added hotel bedroom,” the council noted.

Neither is there any study which evaluates the impact of the added supply of beds in each hotel category.

The council also noted that tourism policy in the past years sought to encourage accommodation in boutique hotels, which regenerate historical scheduled sites in Urban Conservation Areas.

The council also asked whether any impact on the provision of agritourism and boutique hotels has been evaluated in determining the height limitation policy.

“Will the investment poured in the agritourism and boutique hotels be lost in view of the slashing of prices in hotel accommodation created by the risk of an oversupply of hotel accommodation?”

The council also noted that Online booking sites, such as Airbnb are resulting in more travellers seeking alternatives to hotel accommodation, both for a more local experience, as well as to have more privacy than is offered in a hotel.

“Has this trend of renting room space been considered in this drive to add more hotel bedrooms which is not in synch with current trends?”

Significantly although it was the MHRA which insisted on extending the new policy to cover new hotels apart from existing ones, it has also expressed concern on the risks posed by an over supply of beds.

“More beds will also precipitate seasonality problems, as this means that we will have more beds to fill in during the winter months”.

According to the MHRA a strategic direction is needed which guides the industry on the optimum number and types of accommodation required that could register the best yield for the industry.

Parking concerns addressed

One of the concerns seriously addressed by MEPA in the new policy document is the impact of higher hotels on the provision of parking.

The policy requests on-site parking provision for any additional storeys and does not allow hotels to pay for lost parking spaces through the “commuted parking scheme” –which is supposed to finance investment in new car parks.

However, the policy still contains a loophole envisioning instances where on-site parking may not be possible. In such cases MEPA in conjunction with Transport Malta should “either deem that the traffic and parking capacity of the area can take the additional traffic load or the proponent indicates alternatives, which may include transport related compensatory measures”.

Still no such loophole exists for height additions of more than two storeys.

This is because hotels adding more than two storeys will have to cater for the additional parking needs either through on-site parking or through parking facilities situated within a 250-metre radius.

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