Sheep farms and all that

The strengthening of the electricity grid was abandoned for a very long time with the Labour administration concentrating on the provision of power rather than on its distribution

Six organisations and over a hundred individuals had filed collective action for the revocation of the permit for the sheep farm in Bidnija
Six organisations and over a hundred individuals had filed collective action for the revocation of the permit for the sheep farm in Bidnija

The news that the PA is considering revoking the permit of an enormous building in Bidnija - built as a sheep farm - raises several issues that are not necessarily related to this particular development.

First of all, revoking a permit when the development approved by the permit has already been completed is, to say the least, weird. How can this make sense, if such a PA decision invokes the ‘reprocessing’ of a permit for an already existing building? I do not want to get into the issue of whether the originally approved permit should have been approved at all. But the PA is undoubtedly making legal somersaults when it revokes a permit after the approved development has been built and then follows this up by reprocessing the original application. What will happen if the PA now refuses to approve the development?

Is the developer expected to bring the site back to the pristine condition that existed on the site before the building was built? Can the PA be sued for damages in such a case?

It is true that the PA has a right to revoke permits in particular circumstances and the law applies to all permits, irrespective of whether the permitted development has been carried out or not.

But the law ignores the practical aspect of the revoking of such permits. And the PA sometimes suddenly decides to revoke the permit of already built developments just like a conjurer pulls a rabbit out of a hat. To many, this sounds like a joke. And I do not blame the general public for thinking as much.

Normally, permitted sheep farms are much smaller than the one approved in Bidnija. Looking at the - as yet - approved plans, the building contains more than a sheep farm. It includes facilities for visitors and other amenities that are usually not allowed by the PA when granting development permits for sheep farms. A further permit application - that has not as yet been approved - calls for using the large amount of already built-up space for a visitor’s area for tasting and agri-educational/training purposes, ancillary facilities and a Class 4B retail outlet specifically for the selling of agricultural products - not just the cheeselets (ġbejniet) made from sheep’s milk.

The building in Bidnija is not the average ordinary sheep farm.

It is perhaps uncanny how in the case of ‘normal’ sheep farms, the PA insists on the minimum space required just for rearing sheep.

But this issue does not seem to have been raised by the PA when processing the permit for the Bidnija behemoth. But - it is now being alleged - there was ‘an error on the face of the record’ that enables the PA to revoke the approved permit.

This country wants to bolster the agricultural and animal rearing sector. Ġbejniet made from sheep’s milk are one of the products that are officially encouraged, sometimes with EU support. This leads to the necessary permits for building sheep farms in areas that are Outside Development Zones (ODZ) since nobody living in a residential zone wants a sheep farm next to his house.

The problem crops up when some abuse of this concession to encourage production of ġbejniet when, in actual fact, the production of ġbejniet is not the genuine aim of an applicant who wants to build a structure in an ODZ area for other purposes.

The PA can hardly keep on making periodic visits to check whether all permitted sheep farms are being genuinely used for the purpose indicated on the permit. But someone in the government’s Veterinary Regulations Directorate should do this regularly.

Unfortunately, genuine sheep breeders and ġbejniet producers suffer a lot of hassle when they need some PA permit because the system is flooded with imposters.

It is not easy to explain to them what they see as the schizophrenia of the government - encouraging sheep farming and the production of ġbejniet and at the same time hassling them when they apply for a PA permit.

Most environmental NGOs think that all applications for sheep farms are bogus. This is not true, of course.

The problem is that separating the wheat from the chaff is not an easy exercise.

Miriam Dalli’s determination

After the veritable disaster in electricity provision last year, when in the summer months the demand for electricity overwhelmed Enemalta’s distribution system, Minister Miriam Dalli was determined that such a situation will not be repeated this year.

The strengthening of the electricity distribution infrastructure was taken in earnest by Enemalta with kilometres of new cable connections between distribution centres and substations being laid and replacements of old transformers in some cases.

The amount of work that this involved - let alone the cost - was evident in most parts of Malta and Gozo. Roads were dug up for these improvements in the electricity grid to be put in place.

Enemalta seems to be managing to do the works that should have been done over the last 10 years in just 10 months.

The result was total chaos in our roads. Diversions and alternative routes were the order of the day in the last five months or so.

Unfortunately, many times signs indicating diversions were not always reliable. Newly surfaced roads were dug up for the new electricity cables to be laid. Drivers never stopped swearing, of course.

All this is the result of lack of planning. The strengthening of the electricity grid was abandoned for a very long time with the Labour administration concentrating on the provision of power rather than on its distribution.

The second interconnector that gets power from the European grid to Malta was not considered an urgent issue and it will not be finalised before another two years. Now the government has decided to hire two diesel-powered generators for a period of a maximum 47 days per year for two years at a cost of €37 million.

In a statement, the PN pointed out that ‘it now turns out that even the generation supply does not meet our country's demand’.

One cannot help but admire the determination of Minister Miriam Dalli to ensure that last year’s failure of the electricity grid does not repeat itself this summer. But what has happened is a confirmation that her predecessors under Labour had abandoned completely the maintenance and improvement of the electricity grid and this led to the disaster that Malta had to endure last year.