Government policy admits PA rules are facilitating speculation on agricultural land

Land speculation is being encouraged through policies which facilitate 'the reconstruction of derelict buildings for residential purposes'

Agricultural store approved in Zebbug in 2015
Agricultural store approved in Zebbug in 2015

The Planning Authority’s rural policy guidelines for ODZ development approved in 2014 are “increasing the fragmentation of agricultural land” and “facilitating the speculation of ODZ land.”

This claim is being made in the Agricultural Policy for the Maltese Islands 2018-2028 which is intended to provide a “clear direction” to public entities involved in certification, permitting and decision-making.

While existing planning policies are encouraging speculation, the same policies are demotivating genuine farmers who want to invest in their holdings, the policy states.

Land speculation is being encouraged through policies which facilitate “the reconstruction of derelict buildings for residential purposes” and by “the change of use of abandoned farms and land” into residences.

The rural policy guidelines made it possible for landowners to reconstruct any ruin of any structure built before 1978. It also facilitated the change of use to residences in cases where proof of past habitation was presented. The policy also makes it easier to convert abandoned livestock farms into villas.

But farmers participating in the consultation on the new policy, also consider the PA’s rural policy as one hindering the growth of the sector.

“The rural policy is one of the major issues cited by farmers as being demotivating to reach their goals”.

Farmers claimed that while the Rural Policy Guidelines issued in 2014 caters for various forms of agricultural developments it seldom addresses “the genuine needs of farmers who aim at operating in an efficient and effective manner”.

Since the approval of the policy applications for agricultural stores have shot up from just 34 applications in 2014 to 224 in 2017. These applications are regularly vetted by the Agricultural Advisory Committee to ensure that these fulfill genuine agricultural needs.

The footprint allocation for each store depends on the amount of farmland registered on the applicant’s name. This penalizes prospective young farmers who do not have access to land or have no land ownership status.

Farmers who participated in the consultation want larger stores, lamenting that the footprints allowed are not adequate for active farmers utilising modern machinery. This discourages investment in modernisation thus limiting access to EU funds. Alternatively costly equipment ends up stored in dilapidated structures or is left outside to the mercy of natural elements.

According to the new policy on agriculture planning policies should encourage entrepreneurs to invest in innovative rural projects from which the farming community stands to benefit.

The policy singles out hydroponics, aquaponics, vermiculture, insect protein farms and snail farming as sectors which should be encouraged. These sectors “should not be obstructed” simply because of the risk that applications are sometimes submitted with “the intent to bypass the policy in order to gain structures for recreational purposes”.

To curtail abuses the policy proposes that applicants should present business plans and operational plans.

Small-scale on-farm facilities in a rural context should also be linked with a considerable amount of produce that makes the development justifiable such as for a cluster of farmers or an extended family farm unit.

A case by case evaluation “that is not rigid with the needs of the agricultural sector” is recommended.

Concurrently there is a “need to address pressures for speculative development in the countryside, mainly by adopting the benchmarking system for active farmers,” and clear guidelines on “the genuine need for certain types of agricultural structures.”