How Labour’s own planning policies paved way for Toni Bezzina’s ODZ dwelling

An application involving a Nationalist MP exposed by Labour weekly Kullhadd has thrown light on the dangers posed by loopholes in the rural policy guidelines approved in 2014

MP Toni Bezzina (L) withdrew application to build an ODZ villa
MP Toni Bezzina (L) withdrew application to build an ODZ villa

The application withdrawn by Nationalist MP and spokesperson for agriculture Toni Bezzina consisted of a substantial extension of three existing roofless rooms in an area of high landscape value in the vicinity of Mdina. 

While jarring with his party’s stand on ODZ, Bezzina’s application was made possible by the rural development policies which the current Labour administration introduced in 2014. 

The application was presented in the name of Bezzina’s wife while the Nationalist MP represented her in his professional role as architect.

Had the application been approved it would have resulted in a one storey dwelling and a basement over a footprint of nearly 130 sq.m.

Plans submitted to the Planning Authority include three bedrooms, a kitchen, dining and living areas and a washroom over a basement which included a 112 sq.m garage, a domestic store and a small wine cellar.  

While presenting plans which clearly indicate a new dwelling, the application was presented as one foreseeing the “rehabilitation and restoration of existing almond grove and

World War II living quarters and observation room and a proposed pool and new access.”

As noted by Din l-Art Helwa in its objection to the application; this description of the proposed development is misleading “as it does not mention the construction of a new dwelling”. 

In its objection to the application the Environment and Resources Authority also referred to the formation of a hard-surfaced access path, which “will result in the formalisation of the entire site”. 

Bezzina’s application-which was public and was already being screened by the PA and other bodies like ERA- jarred with his own party’s increasingly pro-environment stance especially in view of his role in drafting the PN’s new policy on the environment.

Ironically Bezzina argues that the “application is in line with existing policies” - the same policies which the new Labour government approved in 2014.

Ironically by depicting Bezzina’s application as a national scandal, the Labour media has unknowingly thrown the spotlight on the polices which allow the construction of villas in the countryside, including a number presented by architects known for their allegiance to the government including Labour MP Charles Buhagiar, and government advisor on planning and lands reform, Robert Musumeci.

The site of the proposed development
The site of the proposed development

How 2014 policy makes ODZ villas possible

The Rural Development Guidelines issued in 2014 include a clause (Policy 6.2.A) which specifically allows the “rehabilitation and change of use of architectural historical or vernacular interest” allowing their transformation in to dwellings.

This explains why Bezzina described the roofless structures as “world war II living quarters.”

The policy specifically allows the construction of a dwelling (even if the former use was not residential), provided the existing building to be converted has a minimum area 100 sq.m.

It is not clear whether the three dilapidated rooms together occupy that area. Bezzina also presented aerial photos dating to 1967 to show the extent of the build up area in the past.

The policy distinguishes between historical or vernacular structures and  ordinary rural structures whose owners have to prove past residential use in order to apply for redevelopment according to the terms of Policy 6.2.C. 

But while in these cases the original building can be demolished, under Policy 6.2.A, the original structures must be retained and restored.

Moreover the policy does not rule out an extension of these buildings provided that this “does not involve substantial lateral or vertical extensions and/or substantial re-building.”

Curiously, the demolition and complete redevelopment of ‘ruins’ was specifically excluded in the first draft policy regulating rural and ODZ developments issued for public consultation in October 2013. 

The policy defined as a ruin any dilapidated structure “which had lost the majority of its supporting walls or roofs”. But this important clause was excluded in the final policy approved by the government a year later. 

By defining any structure build before 1978 as being legal, the policy effectively turned the ruins of buildings dating that date as eligible for redevelopment according to the terms of the policy.

This means that any dwelling approved under this policy is also eligible for a basement.

How policy is changing Malta

Over the past years MaltaToday has documented various cases involving the reconstruction of countryside ruins, mostly permitted by Policy 6.2.C. 

It was this policy that was invoked to issue a permit for the demolition of three roofless structures to be converted into a 165 m2 villa with a swimming pool, outside development zones in Rabat’s Landrijiet.  

The PA has also permitted the demolition of a number of  dilapidated rooms – occupying a footprint of 122 square metres – to make space for a 200 sq.m villa in  Mgarr. The Planning Authority also issued a permit for the rebuilding of a two-storey dwelling set over a footprint of 141 square metres of land instead of a pile of rubble in Sqaq il-Fata, lying outside the development boundaries in Zabbar. In all these three cases the owners had to submit proof of past residence, consisting of references to addresses in old electoral registers. Labour candidate Yana Mintoff was also granted a permit to change a disused dilapidated building  in to a dwelling in Xrobb l-Ghagin.

The policy enables any owner o an ODZ dwelling to apply for a 75 sq.m swimming pool and deck area. If this is located withing the boundary of the building owners can apply through the summery procedure which involves very little scrutiny.

Moreover in cases where it is impossible to apply for a residence others are applying for stables, agricultural stores and other developments permitted by the policy.

This is why cranes have now become a more common occurrence in the deep heart of the countryside in the past few years.