Rumbles of discontent at Qala decision

The Planning Authority’s decision to allow dilapidated rooms in a pristine area of Qala to be turned into a villa with swimming pool, reconfirms all the criticism (among others by this newspaper) of an ill-fated ‘reform’ of the Malta Planning and Environment Authority.

This reform was two-pronged. It saw the demerger of the Environment and Planning departments of the regulatory authority responsible for issuing development permits; and it also changed rules concerning developments in Outside-Development Zones (ODZ).

In 2016, MaltaToday ran an editorial saying: “…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…”

That was three years ago. This week, the Planning Authority – which has been separated from the Environment and Resources Authority – approved a controversial permit to redevelop a 31 square-metre countryside ruin into a 114sqm villa and a swimming pool on the pristine Qala coast, despite objections from the Labour-led Qala local council and the ERA. Even the PA’s own directorate recommended refusal.

The application was filed on behalf of Gozitan construction magnate Joe Portelli, the promoter behind Paceville’s Mercury Towers. On Saturday, the growing outrage seems to have led Portelli to announce he was renouncing the permit.

It emerges clearly from proceedings that the development only carried the day, thanks to all Labour government-appointed members on the PA board voting in favour. In addition, the ERA is likely to also contest the proof brought forward by the developer that someone lived in the building back in 1921.

Meanwhile, other policies which have opened loopholes in the planning process include the possibility of redeveloping any building previously used as a livestock 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.  

This also brings to mind the controversy over the initial (later aborted) decision to offer ODZ land at Zonqor Point for the construction of the new AUM campus: another issue that registered anger and frustration across party lines.

More worryingly for Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, the planning board’s decision on Thursday also caused widespread anger: not least among key Labour Party exponents, who recall the party’s objections back in 2009 when then Nationalist Party president Victor Scerri obtained permission to turn countryside ruins in Baħrija into a villa.

The decision to grant planning permission was immediately shot down by former prime minister Alfred Sant, former Labour Party secretary general Jason Micallef, Cyrus Engerer, and Qala’s Labour mayor Paul Buttigieg.

Dr Sant demanded “a public, detailed explanation for the risky decision to approve [the permit]’… ““The PA should properly list the reasons that led to the decision, given that there was dubious evidence for the development of the site. If this explanation is not convincing, it is no wonder that doubts (including my own) will grow over how judiciously the PA carries out its duties. Unfortunately this reflects badly on the Labour government at a time when, as shown in the recent budget, it is achieving great progress.”

Another Sant ally, former Labour secretary-general Jason Micallef, also piped up. “Disgraceful. Shameless. This government and the absolute majority of its electors do not deserve this. This mess should be stopped before it is too late. Labour should have the internal means of bringing to the government’s attention such strange decisions. If this does not happen, the party would be allowing serious damage to the government.”

And Qala’s Labour mayor, Paul Buttigieg, who opposed the project with all his might, was equally outraged. “This permit should never have been granted. All reports recommended refusal. The Qala community is shocked by this permit for an extensive and intensive project on an untouched rural area. The controversial Ta’ Muxi permit has gone ahead despite objections from all consultees. This cannot stop here.”

Alfred Sant is right on two counts: an explanation is certainly warranted, and must be forthcoming immediately; but doubts are also growing, within the PL itself, about the Labour Party’s ability and willingness to deliver on its promises of accountability, transparency and meritocracy.

But Buttigieg, too, is correct. This cannot stop here, for reasons that this newspaper has been calling to public attention for over five years. Malta is too small and too precious to be treated this way indefinitely. And money is too shameful a justification for this travesty.