Planning amnesty: when the road to hell is paved with good intentions

The conditions of the planning amnesty are too vague and practically any breach in development areas can be sanctioned, yet the breaches are so different that one cannot issue an amnesty referring to specifically detailed breaches without making an injustice to others

Parliamentary Secretary Deborah Schembri
Parliamentary Secretary Deborah Schembri

The recently published Legal Notice providing the possibility for owners to regulate an existing illegal development has provoked both positive and negative reactions. As always, the truth is somewhere in between: there is both an upside and a downside to the decision taken to give this ‘amnesty’.

There is no doubt that there are a substantial number of buildings that have some breach of the regulations that could not be sanctioned. Whether this makes the buildings ‘illegal buildings’ is a moot point. Is a building with some small addition or alteration that cannot be sanctioned because of the zoning conditions of the area an ‘illegal building’? I doubt it. A building without any permit is certainly an illegal building but does a small alteration that cannot be sanctioned turn the otherwise legal building into an illegal one? Some might think that this is just playing with words. I think that the term ‘illegal building’ is being abused in this case.

It is ironic that the NGOs who are always referring to the number of unutilised units are now screaming about this amnesty. They are ignoring the fact that a number of these unutilised buildings cannot be sold because they have some irregularity that will now be sanctioned through this amnesty. It seems that environmental NGOs assume that all unutilised buildings have nothing illegal and are all adequate as good residential units. This is patently wrong and exposes the superficiality with which some NGOs look at the building industry.

But back to the amnesty. There is no doubt that over the years the country has ended up with a number of buildings with breaches that cannot be sanctioned. Most of them are not the result of the sins of the present owners. They are the result of the sins of the father, or better still, the sins of the original owner who was responsible for the breach. The present owners find themselves with a house that cannot be sold because of some breach and as a result of banks refusing to lend money for the purchase of residential units that have some unsanctionable breach of the regulations. 

There are many genuine people who have ended with this problem as over the years, the authorities gradually tightened up their scrutiny of illegalities in buildings and the banks followed suit. This should be viewed as a very positive development, of course. But it leaves a number of owners stranded with properties they have to sell at reduced prices, if they can sell at all.

In my life, I have met innumerable cases of this sort, and I can assure everybody that it is usually the end owner – more usually than not, a common law-abiding citizen – who finds himself or herself in this predicament and not some ‘cowboy’ developer who rode roughshod over the rules and regulations. 

The amnesty is an attempt to solve the problems these common people are facing. Calls for such an amnesty have been made over and over again until Joseph Muscat included it in his party’s electoral programme and subsequently produced the magic rabbit that has caused such a furore.

As always, the road to hell is paved with good intentions and undoubtedly there are downsides to this amnesty.

The Chamber of Architects has rightly commented that the amnesty conditions are too vague and practically any breach in development areas can be sanctioned. On the other hand the breaches that are to be sanctioned are so different and refer to all sorts of rules and regulations that one cannot issue an amnesty referring to specifically detailed breaches without making an injustice to others whose breach would not ‘qualify’ for the amnesty.

In other words this is an issue that has to be tackled on a case by case basis rather than according to some written specific rigid rules. This is, of course, dangerous territory. Those who will be deciding whether a breach merits sanctioning or not are human beings and are subject to genuine errors. Even worse, they will be subject to political pressure, with MPs pushing for sanctioning of cases that should not be sanctioned. The good thing is that this amnesty lapses after two years as otherwise we would be having a continual mess rather than a once for all regularisation process.

The other problem is what happens with sanctioning requests that are turned down. The Legal Notice says that the applicants will get most of their money back. But unwittingly they would have reported the breach to the Planning Authority that would have to issue an enforcement order where there is no such thing... with the applicant ending in a worse situation than he was in before he applied for the sanctioning.

There is also another significantly negative aspect of the Legal Notice. The transparency in the process is missing. The applications for the sanctioning under this amnesty will not be published, and the public will not have the possibility of submitting its objections as in the case of all other Planning Authority permits – although where there is a registered complaint about the breach, the complainant will be notified of the application.

This is indeed serious and puts us back to the situation when decisions on building permit applications were taken behind closed doors. Even worse, it makes it easier for citizens to be treated differently with this discrimination being unnoticed.

This part of the Legal Notice is certainly not justified and should be amended if the administration wants to avoid more accusations of discrimination – political or otherwise.

Fishy tale

The pollution from fish farms has been in the news recently, with the authorities announcing that they will be taking firm steps to stop the mess. A preliminary investigation found that there are fish farms with hardly any permit or in breach of the conditions of the Planning Authority permit in a gross manner – from the number of cages, to their size and to the type of fish in the cages.

What astounds me in all this, is that even though fish farming has been with us all these years, nobody ever thought of the need for fish farms to be licensed! The only conditions (that are being breached) are the ones in the Planning Authority permits.

Even worse, fish farms utilise part of the sea for free when logic tells me they should be charged an annual fee related to the volume of sea that they occupy.

Fish farms in Malta are very profitable businesses – much more than wayside cafés which are charged a ‘rent’ for the area of pavements they occupy!

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