PA starts reform of controversial rural policy

Planning Authority commences review of rural policy which controversially paved way for countryside developments by allowing ruins to be converted into villas

Rural policy was criticised by environmentalists for opening tracts of countryside land for development
Rural policy was criticised by environmentalists for opening tracts of countryside land for development

The controversial rural policy which paved the way for dubious developments in the countryside by opening loopholes for owners of countryside ruins which can now be turned in to villas, is finally up for review.

The policy has been the criticised by environmentalists for opening tracts of lands in the countryside for development .

The policy was not limited to agricultural facilities like stables, reservoirs  and agricultural stores but facilitated other developments including ODZ wineries, animal enclosures, visitors attractions and agro tourism projects. The policy also effectively legalised any rural structure build before 1978.

But the most controversial aspect was the policy allowing the transformation of countryside ruins in to new dwellings if the owners could prove past residential use.  

A recent probe by MaltaToday planning permits issued under this policy, revealed that apart from vague reference to properties in old electoral registers dating to the beginning of the century, applicants have even resorted to affidavits by distant relatives and priests to prove past residential use.

The controversary came to the fore after Elizabeth Ellul-the chairperson of the PA’s decision making board on small ODZ applications and one of the authors of the rural policy came close to approving a villa instead of a countryside ruin in Qala after over ruling the case officer.

In her reply to the case officer who was recommending refusal Ellul declared: “The policy is what it is. It is not the remit of the Commission to change the approved policy but it us up to the legislator to decide any policy changes,” Ellul said.   The case has now been taken from her hands and will be decided upon by the PA’s highest board.

The policy also allows 400 square metres of agritourism development over 60-tumolo land parcels. But so far only one such project has been approved.  MaltaToday is informed that pressure has been mounting over the past months to reduce the amount of land holdings required for such projects.

The reform of the controversial policy has been in the offing since 2017 when after expressing his “alarm” at the findings of a MaltaToday probe which showed that ERA had been ignored by the PA in 69% of approved ODZ applications, Environment Minister Jose Herrera had announced the appointment of a ministerial board tasked with investigating the 2014 policy. In July 2019 a PA spokesperson had confirmed review of this policy was in April 2018. More than a year later “the meetings of this committee were still ongoing”.

But today the PA has issued five generic aims for the wide ranging policy review to guide a public consultation during which the public will send its feedback. Subsequently the PA will have to issue a draft which will be submitted to another six week long public consultation.  The final draft will also need another round of public consultation.

One of the aims of the policy review is  to establish whether the scope of the current policy has had the intended effect and to identify those provisions which might be outdated, confusing or require clarification.

The policy review is also meant  to ensure that the amended policy has clear goals and objectives which “meet the aspirations of the Strategic Plan for the Environment and Development as well as the National Rural Development Programme”.  Another aim is “to ensure a smooth transition into compliance when the new policy takes effect.”   

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