Still waiting: no sign of review of PA rules that turn countryside rubble into homes

Review of controversial 2014 rules requested after MaltaToday probe found Planning Authority ignored Environment and Resources Authority in 69% of approved ODZ applications, still to be completed

The room in Qala which will be transformed in to villa thanks to a PA permit issued last week
The room in Qala which will be transformed in to villa thanks to a PA permit issued last week

A long overdue reform of the Planning Authority’s rural policy guidelines that give the Planning Authority (PA) a magic wand with which to change ruins into villas is still in the pipeline, according to an Environment Ministry spokesperson.

In 2017, after expressing his “alarm” at the findings of a MaltaToday probe which showed that ERA had been ignored by the PA in 69% of approved ODZ applications, Environment Minister Jose Herrera had announced the appointment of a ministerial board tasked with investigating the 2014 policy.

The board was to be chaired by the PA’s former Natural Heritage Advisory Committee head, Judge Joseph David Camilleri, but to date, the policy has remained unchanged.  

Just last week, Herrera blasted a PA decision to approve the transformation of a 31sq.m dilapidated room in Qala in to a full-blown 200sq.m villa.

READ MORE: How a contract from 1915 can turn a derelict country ruin into a villa

The Minister tweeted his disapproval of the Planning Commission’s decision “to ignore amongst everybody else, ERA’s recommendation [regarding] the conversion of a tiny room into a villa on virgin territory [in the] limits of Qala. This, the minister said, was “not on”.

MaltaToday had asked Herrera whether he intended to changing the notorious policy, which makes such decisions possible, and to make public the conclusions of the investigation carried out by Camilleri.

The spokesperson confirmed that after the ministerial board chaired by Camilleri had “started to report on certain issues to the minister” and it was decided that a technical working group was to be setup in order for these to be addressed.

The working group, composed of representatives of the Environment Resources Authority, the Planning Authority, environmentalists and other stakeholders, was appointed in April 2018.

The working group has been tasked with coming up with a “holistic policy review process on the Rural Policy and Design Guidelines”, the spokesperson said, adding that it had already identified a number of proposed changes to the policy.

The changes are aimed at addressing the adverse impacts on the rural landscape and character, the overall degradation of the rural and natural environment and the cumulative impacts resulting from the combined effect of both existing and new structures scattered in the countryside.

READ MORE: Ruins make way for villa and pool in Wied il-Busbies

“The minister is constantly being informed on the progress being registered and the conclusions of this process will be communicated at a later stage”.

How the rural policy has opened floodgates for countryside development

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.

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.

In the Qala case, the proposal did not qualify for a new residential use because the internal floor area was 21sq.m.

But the same policy further specifies that a converted building can be used for a use that is already legally established.

Therefore, the developers presented a death certificate indicating that Grazia Mifsud was found in an unnumbered room in Ta’ Muxi in August 1921.

READ MORE: Ombudsman wants legal changes after MaltaToday probe on ERA

But the case officer in this case continued to insist that, since the residential use of the existing building, which has been in disuse since at least 1978, is not legally established or covered by development permission, the permit should not have been granted.

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.  

In the draft, any dilapidated structure “which had lost the majority of its supporting walls or roofs”, was defined as a ruin, 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 made the ruins of buildings 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.

READ MORE: PA’s stamp of approval turns pile of rubble into Zabbar dwelling

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