An unstoppable ODZ landgrab

Let's all just buy up the countryside for cheap, turn it into a giant residential compound and become millionaires overnight

It seems like ages ago now, but anyone remembers Sandro Chetcuti’s famous comment about the two parties being like ‘a giant supermarket’ for building contractors? Not that we really needed any evidence, I suppose... but the latest (depressing) news on the environmental front seems to prove his point with spectacular precision.

Many of you will have read about the PA’s approval of an application to demolish one of the oldest townhouses in St Julian’s. And about the nearby demolition of St Ignatius Villa in Balluta. And about the proposal to build yet another ODZ petrol station in Mgarr (I know, because my Facebook feed was awash with cries of outrage and indignation about all of these, and more). But it was another small news item that caught my eye this week. Vanessa McDonald, writing in The Times, observed how “two-thirds of the applications filed between 2013 and 2017 for residences outside the development zones were approved.” In raw figures, it works out at 417 ODZ applications approved out of 607... with 70 turned down, 101 still pending and 19 withdrawn by the applicant.

Personally, I would not have included the last 19 in the overall computation. ‘Withdrawn by the applicant’ gives us no indication of what might have happened had those applications NOT been withdrawn. Extrapolating from the data regarding approved permits... one would expect two-thirds of those 17 to be likewise approved. (I’d make that around seven myself, but I’m known to get this kind of calculation wrong).

Two-thirds of the applications filed between 2013 and 2017 for residences outside the development zones were approved

More worryingly, if you apply the same projection to the 101 pending applications – even though, as those old investment ads used to remind us: ‘the past is no guarantee of the future’ (like heck , it isn’t) – we should expect roughly 66 of them to be green-lighted, along with all the rest.

And please note, we are talking about applications for ‘residences’ here: not to dig a well in a farmer’s field, and certainly not for anything remotely connected to the ‘national interest’ (to mention the only two exceptions to the ODZ rule traditionally recognised at law: agriculture, and ‘the common good’).

But what intrigues me more than the total amount of ODZ permits, is how the above figures actually break down over the past five years. Consider this: in 2013 (election year), the number of ODZ approvals was 54 out of 63. That’s considerably more than two-thirds.  I’d say it’s closer to 85%. In 2014, 57 out of 65... i.e., more or less the same. The following year, 98 out of 113: a higher number of ODZ permits, but a slightly lower overall approval rating. Then, over the next two years, the approval rating drops, while the number of applications sky-rockets dramatically...: in 2016, 140 applications approved out of 186... and last year, only 68 out of 180. (Note: I say ‘only’ because it works out at roughly one third of the total. In raw figures, it’s still more ODZ permits than either 2013 or 2014...)

It would have been interesting to also take note of how many ODZ applications have already been filed in 2018 – which is only three weeks old – but I guess it’s too early for those stats to be released. All the same, if the trend which emerges from those figures persists... who knows, maybe this year we’ll finally hit the 200-mark...

And this, to me, is the most disturbing implication. It is not so much that the PA routinely approves the vast majority of ODZ applications... because, to be fair, the approval rating did plummet from 85% in 2013, to only 30% last year. No, it is the fact that people are evidently applying for ODZ residences in such alarming droves, that the number of applications actually tripled between 2013 and 2017... to the extent that, despite an apparent clampdown on such approvals, we still end up dishing out more ODZ permits than when the trend was at its peak.

So even if we interpret the drop in approvals to an increased commitment on the PA’s part – and, by the way, there could be any number of other alternative interpretations – the end result remains more virgin land lost forever to speculative development. And a LOT more, too. A lot more, of the one resource that we should by rights cherish the most for being so goddamn scarce.

It’s a little like a Greek tragedy, really: from a single fatal flaw, to a catastrophe of untold proportions. What started out as a short-term scheme to win an election, has now clearly snowballed out of all control.  Even if it wanted to, the PA cannot stop this stampede from taking place... because it flung open the barn doors itself. The drive for ODZ permits has now become an unstoppable force in its own right, propelled by its own momentum.

And by a few other things, of course. All this has yet to be placed in the context of what’s actually changed since 2013.

That would include a ‘reform’ of the Planning Act, which at every point went out of its way to create great big loopholes through which any number of ODZ applications could be approved. Among these loopholes is one which specifically caters for ODZ residences: you can legally build yourself a villa, outside the development zones, if you can prove that the ramshackle old property you bought in the countryside was ever once used as a residence, at any point in history.

In practice, that means you can buy (very cheaply, because it’s ODZ) the remains of a ruined farmhouse in the middle of nowhere, then apply – not to rebuild the farmhouse, or restore it to its original state – but to build anything that can be defined as a ‘residence’. Oh, sure, you won’t get the permit automatically. But you do know a priori that you stand a 66% chance of winning the ODZ lottery... a percentage which may increase, possibly all the way up to 100%, depending on whom you know, or whom you... well, I’ll leave the rest to your imagination.

Already, then, we have a logical explanation for at least one aspect of the above statistics: the obvious surge in ODZ applications in the last two years. Yeah, of course they’d go up. People saw the outrageous percentage of approvals in the previous two years, and fell over themselves in the mad scramble to buy ‘ODZ’ land – if it can still be called that, seeing as it is clearly ‘developable’ – for peanuts, and then milk it for all it’s worth... which I need hardly add would be a lot more than was actually paid for it.

Perhaps more significantly, they would have also seen how the government of Malta (no less) regularly resorts to the same strategy itself. Remember? The reason ODZ land in Zonqor was earmarked for the AUM deal was, in Muscat’s own words, because ‘the land is ODZ, and therefore cheap’. And if the Prime Minister himself reasons that way... well, it’s a little like firing a starter pistol for the greatest land-grab this country has ever seen. Let’s all just buy up the countryside for cheap, turn it into a giant residential compound – with the rest taken up by petrol-stations and industrial enclaves – and become millionaires overnight.

Of course, we’d be millionaires living in an ugly, overbuilt and increasingly unbearable environment... and we’d probably end up using some of that money to send our kids away, so that they grow up somewhere in the world where there are still such things as ‘trees’ and ‘open space’.

But hey, who cares? We’d all be fabulously rich... and that’s what it’s all about, innit?

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