PN’s two-thirds proposal is for rural policy, ‘not projects’

PN backtracks on two-thirds majority rule for planning by fine-tuning proposal for holistic rural development policy that excludes speculative development in countryside

PN leader Bernard Grech
PN leader Bernard Grech

The PN has backtracked on a previous declaration by its leader Bernard Grech and later reiterated in official press statements, to propose a two-thirds majority in the House when major projects are to be permitted outside the development zones.

The PN is now saying it will propose changes to the Planning Authority’s rural development policy, for a new rural plan that will regulate development in the Maltese countryside.

The new ‘rural plan’ will be drafted following widespread public consultation, contain a clear classification of what type of development can be allowed outside development zones, to permit genuine agricultural structures, and exclude speculative developments like the university campus proposed at Żonqor in 2015.

“Genuine developments like rubble walls, country roads, reservoirs, agricultural structures and livestock farms will continue to be allowed and permitted by Planning Authority but projects like those of Sadeen in Żonqor will not. Such developments would require a change in the rural plan, which will require two-thirds majority support in Parliament. So it is the change in plan that needs to go to Parliament, not the planning application itself,” a PN spokesperson told MaltaToday.

The PN says this mechanism will ensure that extensive rural land is only used in truly exceptional circumstances of national importance agreed to by both government and opposition.

In this way the PN insists that it is “showing, through facts, how we can tie even our own hands once in government.”

But when announcing the policy, Bernard Grech specifically referred to ‘projects’ requiring a two-thirds majority, giving an impression that individual projects would end up being approved by parliament.

“As leader of a PN government, I would ensure that ODZ land is protected with a two-thirds parliamentary majority. ODZ land will only be used for development, following approval by a two-thirds majority, for projects that benefit the community, such as a school or a hospital,” he said, adding that a PN government would not repeat past mistakes. 

The declaration raised concerns that parliament would end up discussing minor and bona fide rural developments. Subsequently the PN clarified that only major projects deemed to be in the ‘national interest’ will require a two-thirds majority.

In an official statement last week, the PN reaffirmed Grech’s commitment that “no ODZ land would be developed if the project is not approved by a two-thirds majority in parliament” while making it clear that agricultural developments permissible today would remain so in the future.

But in reply to questions by MaltaToday, the PN has now come up with a more coherent – albeit less controversial mechanism – which excludes any parliamentary discussions on individual planning applications, limiting parliament’s role to approving PA decisions that deviate from the rural development policy, as was the proposed Żonqor campus.

MaltaToday specifically asked the PN to state which criteria and thresholds will be determining which ODZ projects would require parliamentary approval or not;  which entity will determine which projects need to go to parliament or not; and whether the vote in parliament take place before or after the completion of the full planning process and a vote in the PA board. It also asked the PN to state whether projects refused by the PA can still be approved by a two-thirds majority.

The PN has yet to draft a rural plan which includes a new classification of ODZ land and what can be allowed on it, and promises to do this after consulting with stakeholders. “The starting point would be to set out a vision for Malta’s unbuilt area via a holistic rural plan which will give new classifications to the land and the type of development allowed. This would be done following widespread consultation with all stakeholders,” a spokesperson said.

The PN says that the aim of this rural plan would be that of ensuring that ODZ land is protected from speculative development, that agricultural land is protected for agricultural use, and that the development needs of even Natura 2000 sites – such as a ranger’s shed – are all taken into consideration.

Presently ODZ development is regulated by the Spatial Plan for the Environment and Development (SPED) and the rural policy guidelines approved in 2015.  The SPED contains a generic loophole for ODZ development, stating that ODZ development can only take place if this is not “feasible” within the development zone, after first considering already developed sites or vacant sites in the development zone. The term feasibility is not even legally defined.

Back in 2017 the Democratic Party had tabled a private member’s bill proposing the substitution of the word “feasibility” with “sustainability”, which is legally defined to include environmental and social sustainability. In this way any ODZ development proposed would have to match a set of criteria to assess whether it is sustainable or not. But the bill was never discussed by parliament.

The rural policy, which is currently being revised by government, regulates agricultural structures but includes a loophole which permits the transformation of countryside ruins, including piles of rubble, into villas if proof of past residence is provided.

The policy also permitted ‘agricultural stores’ on very small landholdings, raising suspicion that these are being used for recreational rather than agricultural purposes.

The PN says that its motivation in proposing a new rural plan is to address people’s concern on the rapid construction activity that Malta has seen over the last few years, which have seen the Labour government taking over the Planning Authority “as happened with most institutions over the past few years”.

“The public is fast losing countryside to enjoy, agricultural land to provide food security, and natural beauty that is also a cornerstone for our tourism industry. The ‘concretization’ of our rural areas is also causing increased flooding and loss of biodiversity. With all of this in mind, decisions need to be taken, and PN is not afraid of taking such decisions. We need to fight back.”

PN non-committal on local plan changes

But while hinting at stricter planning regulations across the board to address Labour’s glaring shortcomings, the PN shied away from any clear commitment on revising the local plan approved in 2006 and controversial planning policies approved by the Labour government in the past years, which have not only encroached on the countryside but are transforming Malta’s urban areas in to a veritable concrete jungle.

Specifically, the PN did not reply when asked whether it will commit itself not to include any ODZ land inside the development zone in any changes made to local plans if it is elected to power, and whether it is committed to ensure a two-thirds majority for any changes in development boundaries.

MaltaToday also asked the PN whether it will retain the 2006 local plans or whether it will amend or replace these plans; and whether it will change policies approved by the Labour government, including the rural policy regulating development in the ODZ, the Development Control Design Policy approved in 2015, the policy regulating outside catering establishments approved in 2015, and the Floor Area Ratio policy regulating high rise and medium rise development approved in 2015.

In its reply the PN simply disputed claims by the Labour Party that the increase in construction is largely due to the 2006 decision to extend the development boundaries, which it says “were essential at the time”.

And while saying that it was the 2015 policies ushered through by a Labour government without any parliamentary approval that led to a huge rise of apartments being built, it is making no clear commitment to withdraw these development guidelines, limiting itself to saying that these policies were introduced “without proper planning, so there have been several consequences such as loss of parking and added pressure on our electricity distribution networks.”

As reported by MaltaToday over the past years, the 2015 guidelines contributed to overdevelopment by making it more lucrative for developers to knock down existing buildings, by allowing developers to fit more floors than envisaged in the local plans.

This was craftily done by translating height limitations limiting the number of floors found in the local plan into metric height and by lowering the legal height of each floor.