Planning Authority set to lose magic wand that turns ruins into villas

A MaltaToday investigation that has led to an important reform in planning rules allowing villas to be built in the countryside

The Qala countryside ruins that was once destined to be turned into a villa with pool: first approved, then withdrawn by Joseph Portelli
The Qala countryside ruins that was once destined to be turned into a villa with pool: first approved, then withdrawn by Joseph Portelli

Planning policy changes announced by environment Minister Aaron Farrugia will ensure there will be no repetition of the Qala case in which entrepreneur Joseph Portelli was granteda permit to convert a countryside ruin into a villa on the basis of dubious notarial declarations.

A simple change to the definition of what constitutes a “ruin” in the policy’s glossary will preclude the repetition of egregrious cases in which the Planning Authority’s planning commission, formerly chaired by Elizabeth Ellul, approved the reconstruction of ruins, even rubble piles, into brand new villas with swimming pools.

Many of these were approved on the pretext that these properties were listed in electoral registers dating back to the 1920s and 1930s.

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Martin Saliba, the executive chairman of the Planning Authority, explained that the new policy will ensure that only buildings presently used, as dwellings will be eligible for redevelopment. Moreover the new policy will recognise the importance of ruins in the rural landscape.

“A ruin will no longer be eligible for redevelopment as a dwelling,” Martin Saliba categorically said.

Other changes include the preclusion of new stand-alone stables, which will be limited to already existing buildings.

MaltaToday is informed that one important departure is a change to what constitutes a legally constructed building. While the 2014 rural guidelines policy described any countryside buildings constructed before 1978 as being legal, the new policy sets 1967 as the new demarcation date. This means that any building constructed without a permit after 1967 will be considered illegal.

Another loophole plugged in the new policy is the construction of stores by pseudo-farmers registering as such only before presenting an application, to build a new “store”, surround it with a boundary wall, and create their own recreational room right in the middle of the countryside. This loophole will be addressed by increasing the amount of land one has to own to become eligible for such a store, and by ensuring that only farmers who have tilled the land for a period of time are eligible.

The new draft policy, approved by the PA’s executive committee yesterday, will be issued for a six week consultation period to replace the permissive rural guidelines of 2014.

The draft has already been discussed in meetings with environmental NGOs who have contributed to its formulation.

Farrugia explained that the main thrust of the policy is that of benefitting genuine farmers, while minimising impact on the environment. Saliba also said the policy is aimed at controlling, rather than encouraging new buildings. Instead the use of already existing structures will be encouraged.

The new policy will apply to all pending applications, which are decided after its approval. The policy will require another six week public consultation on changes made to the draft to be issued next week and will also have to be discussed in parliament’s environmental committee.