Three ways new planning polices made Malta’s countryside ripe for plunder

Nationalist MP Toni Bezzina’s application to build a country home outside development zones reopens the Pandora’s box of policies Labour devised to allow more rural construction. James Debono explains how

Had Toni Bezzina's application been approved, it would have resulted in a one-storey dwelling and a basement
Had Toni Bezzina's application been approved, it would have resulted in a one-storey dwelling and a basement

1. Buy a ‘vernacular’ building and apply for an extension

One way to develop a dwelling in the countryside is by buying land which contains a “vernacular building” or something of historical interest. A vernacular building is defined as one “containing features which reflect local needs, traditions, and construction materials”.  

Even if the former use of the building was not residential, a dwelling can still be developed provided that the existing building gets converted into a minimum habitable area of 100 sq.m.

The vernacular building can be retained but extensions are allowed as long as the “lateral or vertical extension” is not “substantial”. Apart from residential use any other use that would “lead to an overall improvement to the area” can be allowed. The building’s area can also be enclosed by a rubble wall, and if big enough more than two dwellings of 150 sq.m can be developed on such sites. A swimming pool and deck area totalling 75 sq.m can be allowed within the enclosed area.

Case study: Away from it all in Bidnija

In 2015 a permit was issued for a new dwelling in Gebel Ghawzara in Bidnija through the extension of a very old rural building, possibly dating to the time of the Knights of St John, despite contrary opinions
In 2015 a permit was issued for a new dwelling in Gebel Ghawzara in Bidnija through the extension of a very old rural building, possibly dating to the time of the Knights of St John, despite contrary opinions

In 2015 a permit was issued for a new dwelling in Gebel Ghawzara in Bidnija through the extension of a very old rural building, possibly dating to the time of the Knights of St John, despite the contrary opinion of the Superintendence for Cultural Heritage, the Planning Directorate and the Environment Planning Directorate.  

The 2012 application was destined for refusal under the old planning rules.

The development, which is more than double the existing 43 sq.m building approved in May 2015 – was approved on the basis of Policy 6.2.A. of the rural development guidelines, which permit extensions to vernacular buildings. Anthony Camilleri, who was represented by architect Edwin Mintoff, presented the application.

In a 2012 memo the Superintendence for Cultural Heritage said the development involved “extensive rock cutting” and the construction of a new building in a “highly sensitive archaeological area”; “Numerous remains are known to exist in this area, including three rock-cut tombs… within the same area being proposed for development.”

The PA’s case officer warned that engineering works on the karstland for the new cesspit and reservoir would lead to the obliteration of the karstland and that the legally existing structure proposed as “residence” did not have a minimum habitable floorspace of 100 sq.m as required by policy.

Additionally, the structure was not serviced by a road network to adequately cater for the proposed residence, warning of the “necessity to create a road network or the proposed residences would leave a negative impact on the cultural remains of the area.” The nearest schemed road was over 200m away from the structure.

So in issuing the permit, the Environment Planning Commission imposed a condition requiring archaeological monitoring of the works was imposed. The commission also argued that since the 43 sq.m building was already used as a residence in the past (as proven by reference to the building in past electoral registers), the requirement that the existing building must occupy 100 sq.m did not apply.

2. Buy land where the ruins of a former residence is found

Buying land which includes the ruins of a countryside building formerly used as a dwelling before 1978, allows any such building that appears on survey sheets or aerial photos to be reconstructed as a dwelling… even if all that is left is a pile of rubble.

But to transform the new building you have to prove that someone used to live in the old building. Finding a reference to the building in past electoral registers, even those dating to the 1930s, usually solves this. The replacement cannot exceed the total floor area of the previous building.

But another policy permits the extension of all existing dwellings in the area, to a maximum allowable dwelling of 200 sq.m. In cases where no proof of past residence can be provided, the ruins of existing structures can still be rebuilt as “agricultural stores” irrespective of whether one is a registered farmer or not.

Case Study: PA’s magic wand turns rubble into villa

In 2016 the PA 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
In 2016 the PA 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

In 2016 the PA 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.

The 1947 electoral register was submitted as the definitive proof that a building abandoned 38 years ago was once used as a residence.

Both the Planning Directorate (case officer) and the Environment and Resources Authority objected to the proposal, with the ERA arguing that the collapsed building “appears to be an old traditional rural structure characterized by traditional features and was an integral part of the character of the area”. 

The ERA concluded that a “pre-1978 structure should never be considered as a justification for the development of a 140.8 square metre residence.” Architect Robert Musumeci on behalf of Mary Rose Seixas filed the application.

3. Buy an abandoned livestock farm

MEPA had issued a controversial permit for a villa set on agricultural land, on the pretext that a neighbouring garage once served as a livestock farm
MEPA had issued a controversial permit for a villa set on agricultural land, on the pretext that a neighbouring garage once served as a livestock farm

A third way of developing a villa in the countryside is by buying land, which includes a disused livestock farm. This is because the PA’s rural policy allows it to approve residential development instead of disused farm buildings “which are creating a negative environmental impact on the site and its surroundings”.  The disused livestock farms must have ceased operation before 2004 and may be redeveloped into a 200 sq.m dwelling. 

Case study: The chickens come home to roost

A controversial permit for a villa set on agricultural land, issued on the pretext that a neighbouring garage once served as a livestock farm, was issued to Roderick Farrugia, son-in-law of former Labour MP Bertu Pace, today a consultant to the parliamentary secretary responsible for agriculture, Roderick Galdes. Architect and Labour MP Charles Buhagiar filed the application.

MEPA claimed that a letter from the Agriculture Department substantiated the site’s former use as a farm.

One of the documents cited as proof that the garage had been used as a poultry farm consisted of a document issued by the Veterinary Regulation Directorate, stating that the shed is not economically viable to be used to keep chickens. The directorate claimed the farm today would not be in keeping with the Code of Good Agricultural Practice.

“Therefore, besides the building being derelict it cannot operate again as a farm. This statement concurs with the affidavit submitted by the previous owners who stated that the farm had stopped operations,” a MEPA spokesperson had told MaltaToday. 

The Toni Bezzina case

The Bezzina application was presented in the name of his 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 in an area of high landscape value close to the Saqqajja in Rabat. 

Plans included 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.

The new dwelling 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”.

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