Malta’s planning regime needs urgent reform

The controversial Rural Policy in Design Guidelines, approved in 2014, allows any roofless and long-abandoned countryside ruins can be transformed into small villas

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

It has not been a good month for the Planning Authority, which has faced its first major test since the ‘demerger’ that divested it of its environmental responsibilities.

The approval of two major high-rise projects – including a 38-storey tower in the heart of one of Malta’s most congested towns – has graphically underscored that such decisions are no longer taken with any consideration for environmental, infrastructural, or even sustainability issues.

Malta has gravitated into a perilous ‘business-first-at-all costs’ orbit, and as such we are clearly heading towards an environmental and infrastructural crisis.

But we are now also tasting the bizarre fruit of some earlier planning decisions: not least, the controversial Rural Policy in Design Guidelines, approved in 2014.

According to this policy, any roofless and long-abandoned countryside ruins can be transformed into small villas. All the owner has to do is prove that the structures had once served as a dwelling. 

This is leading to a surreal situation, whereby contracts signed more than a century ago, and electoral registers dating back to the 1930s, are being invoked as proof of past residence. 

Curiously, the demolition and complete redevelopment of ‘ruins’ was specifically excluded in the first draft policy regulating rural and ODZ developments, issued for public consultation in October 2013.  

The policy originally defined as a ruin any dilapidated structure “which had lost the majority of its supporting walls or roofs”. But this important safeguard against abuse was excluded in the final policy approved by the government a year later.  

It was this policy that was invoked in September 2015 to issue a permit for the demolition of three roofless structures to be converted into a villa with a swimming pool, on the Rabat outskirts of Landrijiet – also ODZ. The villa will be built over a footprint of 165 square metres. 

The same policy was invoked earlier this year to resurrect a building which collapsed 30 years ago in the Zabbar countryside, and of which only a pile of rubble was left. More recently, it was invoked to convert dilapidated buildings in Mgarr.  

Moreover, according to the policy, any building constructed before 1978 is considered as legal. This means that any building appearing in site maps issued before 1978 can be rebuilt.   

Curiously, there is no cut off date to ensure that the structure has at least been used as a residence in, for instance, the past two decades. This means that technically one can rebuild any old structure once used as a residence, however long ago.

Other policies which have opened loopholes in the planning process include the possibility of redeveloping any building previously used as a live stock farm, which has not been used for at least 10 years. The policy specifies that the replacement building must represent an improvement over the present situation (leaving room for a great deal of subjective interpretation), but this clause does not safeguard the countryside from urban sprawl.  

The end result of these policies is that tracts of countryside are being opened to urban development. The presence of dwellings, even if interspersed, over a large area creates more traffic and infrastructural pressures. Moreover such policies also result in an appreciation of value of ODZ land, thus making it more attractive to land developers and speculators.  

On its own this is bound to create more political pressures to further shift the goal posts in future policy revisions. The availability of dwellings on ODZ land also creates a class inequality between those who can afford to live in the middle of the countryside, and those who live in congested and over developed urban spaces. 

This is not a new thing. One should just remember that whole settlements like Busietta gardens were created in the countryside. But although more limited, these policies offer an even greater price; making available plots of land which were completely out of reach for developers because of the level of protection they enjoy.  In fact applications which have been repeatedly shot down by the PA in the past decades have now been resurrected using the new policy loopholes. 

Prior to 2014, rural buildings could only be converted if in a “sound structural condition” and “without substantial rebuilding.” But this was not enough to prevent the substantial rebuilding of countryside ruins, such as the building developed by former PN president Victor Scerri through a series of piecemeal applications.  

Curiously, despite the protests by the Labour Party against this permit, the new policy is making applications like that of Scerri a more common occurrence.  

It is now time for the government to reassess the 2014 policy guidelines and to introduce urgent changes. It is positive that the government has already taken the step of starting a revision of the policy to close a loophole on stables. The revised policy is proposing that each individual stable is separated by a two metre gap from the neighbouring stable. This will make it difficult for owners to disguise new countryside villas as stables. 

Hopefully, the government will also address other loopholes included in this infamous policy, which may go down in history as the worst environmental disaster since the 2006 ODZ rationalization.