Maligned rural policy fuelled increase in ODZ swimming pools

663 ODZ swimming pools approved in 10 years: approvals increased after 2014 rural policy from just 25 in 2013, to 121 in 2019

A total of 663 swimming pools were approved outside development zones since 2010, of which 29% were approved in Gozo.

Moreover, 468 new swimming pools were approved since the beginning of 2015, following the approval of the controversial rural policy in September 2014, which facilitated the development of new dwellings in outside development zones.

Although this policy is now being scrapped and replaced by a more restrictive one, environmental NGOs have recently expressed their disappointment that ODZ swimming pools will still be permitted under the new regime.

Official figures released by the Planning Authority to MaltaToday show that 2019 was a bumper year for ODZ swimming pools, with 121 new pools approved in a single year. Significantly, 38% of new swimming pools approved last year were in Gozo. The trend continued in the first seven months of 2020 during which 77 ODZ swimming pools were approved, 44% in Gozo.

The number of ODZ swimming pools decreased from 46 in 2010 to just 25 in 2013. But numbers started picking up after the approval of the new rural policy. In fact, the number of ODZ pools shot up from 26 in 2014 before the approval of the new policy, to 59 the following year with the numbers steadily increasing to reach 73 in 2018 and 121 in 2019.

The figures include pools located in tourist accommodation facilities and extensions of existing swimming pools, but do not include renewals of previous permits.

How the 2014 rural policy changed the goalposts

The rural policy guidelines introduced in 2014 were similar to guidelines on ODZ swimming pools established in 2000. But these also created greater opportunities for the development of ODZ dwellings including the redevelopment of ruins in to full-scale villas with pools enclosed behind boundary walls.

The policy allows swimming pools within the “curtilage” of any legally-established accommodation with the pool and the deck area being restricted to a footprint of 75sq.m. Curtilage is defined as a “physically restricted tract of land immediately contiguous to a legally established building that is already physically existing, typically bound by a peripheral wall enclosing the building.”

This policy encouraged owners to surround their ODZ compounds with boundary walls enclosing not just the dwelling but surrounding landscaped areas around the pool. In the case of multiple accommodations, the said maximum size of 75sq.m may be increased up to a maximum of 5sq.m per additional accommodation. Swimming pools were even permitted in Areas of Ecological Importance if it can be duly demonstrated through the necessary assessment, that the development does not compromise the sites in question.

The new draft policy proposed to replace the 2014 rules is more restrictive when it comes to approving new dwellings in the countryside and plug loopholes through which ruins could be turned in to full-scale villas with pools. Therefore, if approved,  the new policy would indirectly contribute to a decrease in new pools. The new rules are also more restrictive when it comes to the approval of new development in protected areas.

But it largely keeps the same parameters for swimming pools whenever an ODZ dwelling is approved. In their reaction to the new policy, NGOs welcomed the more restrictive policy guidelines but have expressed disappointment that ODZ swimming pools can still be permitted. The NGOs maintain that the development of ODZ swimming pools is not a “a legitimate use within the countryside” and expressed disappointment “that the chance was missed to deal with this problem”.

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