Unfinished business: discredited rural policy still in place 17 months since review

A reform of the controversial rural policy which gives the Planning Authority a magic wand to change rural ruins into villas with pools, is still ongoing since the review started back in October 2019

Qala ruins: almost became a villa
Qala ruins: almost became a villa

A reform of the controversial rural policy which gives the Planning Authority a magic wand to change rural ruins into villas with pools, is still ongoing since the review started back in October 2019.

The PA is attributing the delay to the time needed to assess the “voluminous” submissions it has received.

17 months since it announced a review of the controversial rural policy, following public outrage at a permit for construction magnate Joseph Portelli to turn a ruin in Qala into a villa, there is no sign of changes for the controversial policy.

Although Portelli had withdran the Qala application, the policy permitting similar developments is still in place, such as one recent permit for a villa outside the Zabbar building zone being issued.

Over six months have passed since the conclusion of a six-week public consultation on the draft policy published last July, hailed by Environment Minister Aaron Farrugia as one minimising development in rural areas and “limiting it to genuine projects”.

The policy will require another round of public consultation before the policy is given the seal of approval by the government.

It is the length of time between the two obligatory rounds of public consultation, which determines the length of the review process.

In the case of the controversial fuel station policy, this process took two years and a half. The risk is that in the intermediate period, PA boards will still be expected to approve permits under the discredited policy. Moreover, even when such permits are not approved, developers can present appeals based on the 2014 policy.

More than half a year later, a PA spokesperson has confirmed that the rural policy is currently being reviewed following the analysis of the public submissions during the consultation held in mid-2020. “The submissions received were voluminous and required detailed assessment to identify the issues and propose changes to the text of the public consultation draft. The revised draft will be published once this exercise is completed,” the PA told MaltaToday.

The proposed policy draft issued for public consultation in 2020 will preclude the repetition of egregious 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.

The draft policy issued last year excludes the redevelopment of ruins and any redevelopment is limited to buildings, which can actually accommodate a dwelling. In the new policy a “ruin” is defined as a dilapidated structure, which has lost all, or the majority of its supporting walls.

If the draft policy published last year is approved permission may still be granted for a limited extension to an existing dwelling in rural areas, but only in two cases; if a dwelling is covered by a development permission and is used as a dwelling today or if the property in question was visible on the 1978 aerial photos and was 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.

As proposed, the new policy militates against the mushrooming of ‘stores’ by people posing as farmers or who possess very little farmland to justify erecting a new building as farmers owning fewer than 10 tumuli will not be allowed to build any store. Under the proposed new policy stables will only be allowed within the defined boundary of a legally established rural dwelling. The old policy permitted stables outside the boundary of rural dwellings.

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.  Moreover as proposed the policy does not permit the construction of new tourist accommodation facilities in the countryside limiting agritourism to existing buildings.

Environmental NGOs had welcomed the proposed changes but had proposed removing the automatic right given to ODZ dwellings to have a pool and for the removal of zoos from the list of developments, which can be allowed in the ODZ.