Ending the magic that turns rubble into villas: how new rural policy plugs the loopholes

From banning agricultural stores on small holdings, to stopping the conversion of ruins to villas, the PA’s new rural policy is set to make it harder for creative architects to find loopholes for residential development in the countryside

The present policy permits the reconstruction of existing countryside buildings, including ruins, into villas with pools if proof is submitted that these buildings had been used as dwellings in the past
The present policy permits the reconstruction of existing countryside buildings, including ruins, into villas with pools if proof is submitted that these buildings had been used as dwellings in the past

No ‘stores’ for small holdings

The new policy clearly militates against the mushrooming of ‘stores’ by people posing as farmers or who possess very little farmland to justify erecting a new building.

The policy approved in 2014 permitted farmers owning between 4 and 10 tumuli of land a 15-sq.m store with an underlying basement. Under the new policy, farmers owning fewer than 10 tumuli will not be allowed to build any store.

Those owning 10-20 tumuli will retain the right to build a 20sq.m store. Those owning 20-40 tumoli will also retain the right to build a 40sq.m store. But to help farmers cultivating substantial landholdings, the threshold for building a 60sq.m store has been reduced from 46 to 40 tumoli.

In any case the Agricultural Advisory Committee has to recommend whether there is a “genuine need” for the store being proposed. A new clause had also been introduced as a safeguard against the commercialization of these stores, as the present policy encouraged farmers to sell the new structures to people using them exclusively for recreational purposes.

In all cases, the applicant will be required to enter into a planning obligation through a public deed, to be duly registered both at the Public Registry and at the Land Registration Agency, tying the ownership of the agricultural store to that of the farm. In this way if the store cannot be sold or transferred to third parties, unless in conjunction with the farm.

Garaging of vehicles other than those used only in the course of the agricultural activity is being prohibited. 

No hotels in the countryside

The old policy permitted the new agri-tourism development accommodating 7 to 10 guest-rooms with ancillary facilities, which may include a swimming pool over a total floor space of 400sq.m. This was limited to landholdings of more than 60 tumoli.

The new policy does not refer to agri-tourism but does encourage the change of use of existing farm building to an “employment generating use which is compatible with the Rural Area such as niche tourism, research and innovation and nature appreciation.”

The new policy does permit the change of use and extensions of existing rural buildings to “tourist accommodation”. But in such cases the applicant must be a farmer who has been registered with the competent authorities for a minimum of five years.

Moreover, the converted building must already have a floor area of 100sq.m and can only be extended to 250sq.m.

Under the new policy stables are only allowed within the defined boundary of a legally established rural dwelling. The old policy permitted stables outside the boundary of rural dwellings.

In the new policy a 'ruin' is defined as a dilapidated structure, which has lost all, or the majority of its supporting walls
In the new policy a 'ruin' is defined as a dilapidated structure, which has lost all, or the majority of its supporting walls

No villas instead of ruins

The present policy permits the reconstruction of existing countryside buildings, including ruins, into villas with pools if proof is submitted that these buildings had been used as dwellings in the past.

Now permission may be granted for a limited extension to an existing dwelling in rural areas, but only in two cases. In the first scenario the dwelling has to be covered by a development permission, and must still be used for habitation upon the submission of the application.

In another scenario the applicant has to prove that the property in question was visible on the 1978 aerial photos and has been used as a residence prior to that date. This effectively excludes the extension or redevelopment of old properties which predate the introduction of planning rules, but which were not used as dwellings in 1978. Moreover, the policy still excludes ruins and it has to be made clear that the building in question can actually accommodate a dwelling.

In these two cases the existing dwelling can be extended by a maximum of 50% of the existing gross floor area provided that the floor space of the existing dwelling and the extension would not exceed 200sq.m and the footprint does not exceed 150sq.m. Where the gross floor area of the dwelling is already more than 200sq.m, no further extensions shall be permitted.

In the new policy a “ruin” is defined as a dilapidated structure, which has lost all, or the majority of its supporting walls.

Contrary to present policies, no new dwellings can be permitted in restoration projects, involving vernacular buildings, which have architectural merit but have not been scheduled. A single 100sq.m dwelling may be permitted within scheduled rural buildings. When it comes to buildings with no vernacular or heritage value “the policy discourages redevelopment for new residential purposes”

One major shortcoming in the new policy is that it still gives ODZ dwellings an automatic right for a swimming pool.  Apart from encouraging the waste of a precious resource (water) this policy has contributed to the urban sprawl and the formalisation of rural environments.

Closing the sty-to-villa loophole

The new policy no longer permits the conversion of disused livestock farms into brand new dwellings. This removes one of the most blatant loopholes in the 2014 policy which led to the approval of villas with pools instead of pig or cow farms left abandoned for over 10 years.

According to the present policy, permission may be granted for the redevelopment of an existing building to a single dwelling unit for an arable farmer. The present policy only allows new dwellings for livestock farmers and only within the boundary of the farm.

Zoos still allowed

Under the new policy, ODZ zoos are still allowed but ancillary facilities are limited. Any related amenities and supporting facilities have to demountable and constructed in lightweight reversible materials. These are to be limited to basic facilities up to a maximum footprint of 15sq.m and only allowed if they don’t have an adverse impact on the environment and the landscape.

More in Townscapes