New local plans likely after general election

No date for new local plans to tweak development boundaries, fuelling speculation they will only come in place after the next general electio

Planning Authority Executive Chairman Johann Buttigieg had said he expcted the techncial finalisation of the draft local plans to be completed by June, 2015
Planning Authority Executive Chairman Johann Buttigieg had said he expcted the techncial finalisation of the draft local plans to be completed by June, 2015

The new local plans for the Maltese islands, which had attracted close to 7,000 submissions from the public when launched in 2013, are still incomplete a year before the next general election, fuelling speculation that the juggling of development boundaries and new building heights for Maltese towns will take place after the next general election.

This signals a change of heart on the part of the government, which clearly intended to complete the process during this legislature.

Writing in the Planning Authority’s annual report for 2014, Executive Chairman Johann Buttigieg had said he expected the technical finalisation of the draft local plans to be completed by June 2015. This had to be followed by a discussion with the government, followed by an eight-week public consultation period.

But a PA spokesperson confirmed this week that the PA “has not concluded its technical work on the revision of draft local plans” and has not “forwarded any local plans to the government”. The authority’s spokesperson also confirmed that “no target date has been set for their completion”.

The prospect of the process dragging into the next general election campaign may lead to heightened electoral pressures on the government and politicians, applied by those who are hopeful of getting their land included in new development zones or who stand to gain from revisions in heights or zoning of particular areas.

“There has been a lot of street talk on government promises about local plan amendments,” Ryan Callus, the Opposition’s planning spokesperson told MaltaToday, adding that the PN has been kept in total darkness on the process.

With a year to go, Callus considers the chances of a holistic revision before the election as now “almost certainly out of the question”, given the lengthy process involved.

“The government’s abysmal record in environmental affairs is such that it may have realised that it would be better to postpone local plan revisions to after the election, in an attempt to hold on to a good number of people who have had enough,” Callus told MaltaToday.

The local plan saga

In June 2013, former lands parliamentary secretary Michael Farrugia confirmed that the government intended to substitute the current seven regional local plans with three generic plans, one of which would be exclusive to Gozo and Comino, one for the whole of urban Malta and the other for the Maltese ‘Out of Development Zone’.

The aim of this revision was to “streamline policies and avoid conflicting policy interpretation”.

The Structure Plan approved in 1992 comprised 24 Local Plans as well as plans covering Rural Conservation Areas. Instead, the previous government had opted for seven local plans covering six regions and one locality. A set of local plans was issued in 2006 in parallel to the controversial wholesale extension of building boundaries.

The new timeframe dictated by the new law, which requires two periods of public consultation, both for the first draft and the final draft, makes it even more unlikely for the government to issue the new plans in the next year.

Despite the decision to do away with regional local plans, MEPA still held seven town-hall meetings in 2013 covering the regions incorporated in the current seven local plans.

MEPA chairman Vince Cassar also described the publication of the new local plans in 2015 as an “important milestone”. Cassar wrote that “it is now time that local plans are updated as required” and that a “number of discrepancies and anomalies in the current plans” need to be adjusted. Cassar made it clear that he was against “indiscriminate enlargement of development zones” but “a number of anomalies need to be addressed.”

The promised lands

The government has already excluded a major extension of development zones comparable to that of 2006.

But when asked why the government does not simply retain the boundaries as these are today, former parliamentary secretary Michael Falzon had justified tweaking the 2006 boundaries by accusing the former government of being “creative” in including certain lands, but not others.

Curiously, Falzon’s justification was very similar to that of George Pullicino’s in 2006, who justified the extension as an attempt to rectify anomalies created by the 1988 temporary boundaries.

Falzon’s successor as planning secretary, Deborah Schembri, has apparently put the entire process on hold.

But the government is under intense pressure by some landowners left out of the 2006 extension, to have their lands included in development zones – a move that would appreciate the value of their land.

While in January 2013 Joseph Muscat had promised before the election, that ODZ boundaries “won’t be touched”, the tweaking of development boundaries has been on the agenda since the election. In a bid to achieve a zero net loss of ODZ, and therefore not be accused of enlarging development zones to appease owners who missed out in the 2006 extension, the government has hinted that it will remove some of its own lands from the development zones to accommodate some private owners of ODZ lands.

The Strategic Plan for the Environment and Development (SPED) foresees “minor adjustments” to development boundaries “whilst ensuring that the overall result does not constitute a significant change”.

In this way the ‘tweaking’ of development zones is to be compensated for by redrawing the boundaries of ODZ (outside development zones) elsewhere.

“The net impact would be zero loss of ODZ areas,” so claimed government sources to the Sunday Times on the effects of this redrawing process last year.

The government would not lose anything in terms of developable land, and the reason for this is simple: although these lands are within development zones, they are still “safeguarded” from development by other planning policies limiting what actually takes place on these land parcels.

A case in point is part of the Zonqor coastline in Marsascala, which is technically within development zones but protected by other policies.

But it remains doubtful whether enough publicly-owned ODZ land exists to offset the demands by landowners to have their land included in development schemes. Inevitably some landowners will miss the bus and feel unfairly left out of the latest revision.

This may be one of the unofficial reasons why the completion of the new local plans has been postponed to a later date, probably after the next election. The silver lining for the government being that the promise of inclusion in tweaked boundaries after the next election may be enough to secure the vote and backing of the land owners who may benefit from the ODZ swap.