Land use: Fact checking Muscat’s ODZ pledge

Two years after announcing the American University of Malta project on ODZ land in Zonqor, the Prime Minister announced that no 'public' projects would be allowed on ODZ land. What does this mean? James Debono asks

An artistic impression of the development at Zonqor Point
An artistic impression of the development at Zonqor Point

On Monday Joseph Muscat said that a new Labour government would commit itself to a legislature “where no public projects on Outside Development Zone land are implemented”. In so doing Muscat is extending a pledge he already made before the general election. But does this mean an end to all ODZ development?

Fact check

It is not clear whether Muscat is excluding any public project which takes ODZ land or whether public ODZ land will not be used for any public or private project.  For even the AUM project was a private project for which public ODZ land was transferred to it by parliament. Moreover if the government excludes any development on public ODZ land it would also be excluding any development along the public coastline (ex beach concessions), at least where the land in question is designated as ODZ. In this sense the PL has to explain whether it is categorically excluding any transfer of public ODZ land to private interests.  

Land reclamation is ODZ

It also remains unclear whether Labour is also excluding land reclamation projects, an option which formed part of Labour’s 2013 manifesto. Any development proposed on the sea (even in urban areas) is considered by the Planning Authority as ODZ.  Moreover by excluding any public project on ODZ land the Prime Minister is also excluding public infrastructure projects, which have to be necessarily located on ODZ land. One case in point is the Gozo tunnel, which would necessarily involve excavations on ODZ land. Moreover parts of the coast, even those within development zones, are now deemed to be part of the public domain. It is unclear whether these will also be excluded. 

The race track test

It is also unclear whether Muscat is excluding all land outside development zones.  Only on Friday TVM announced that land in Ta’ Qali (near the old runway) had been identified for the development of a motor race course. Although the land has been designated for recreational and sports activities, it still technically falls under the ODZ designation. Moreover the race track will also include ancillary developments like a hotel and educational facilities.

In short a full blown race track cannot be seen in the same light as jogging tracks, outdoor gyms or even a small motorsport facility like the existing one in Hal Far.  Amendments to the Ta’ Qali Action in 2012 do foresee the development of a race track but this is meant as “a relocation of the existing motor sports activity which is necessary to facilitate the construction of the Fairs and Conventions Centre”. Only essential structures would “be considered and their design and location should be integrated within the overall landscaping scheme for the site and seek to minimize visual impact”. One major concern is that such a development will impinge on the nature of the open gap between Mosta and Attard.

Redevelopment of existing ODZ buildings

Another major issue is the use of existing buildings outside development schemes.  While these buildings already exist, a change in use may also attract more traffic to the countryside.  The change of use of presently derelict buildings may also contribute to the urban sprawl. For example the Farmers cooperative winery in Burmarrad has been transformed into a Kiabi shopping mall, a development which contrasts with the rural landscape.

Private projects

What is sure is that the PL is not excluding private projects on ODZ land. The Strategic Plan for the Environment and Development (SPED) itself includes a number of loopholes for developments like schools, private hospitals, petrol stations, homes for the elderly and any development which is not feasible within the development zone.

The PN has so far promised that any project irrespective of whether public or private will need parliamentary approval; a two-thirds majority in two consecutive votes and a final simple majority vote. 

Changing the ODZ boundary

Moreover Muscat has so far not excluded any revision of local plans to exclude the inclusion of presently ODZ land in new development zones.  

Although before the 2013 election Muscat had categorically excluded any extension of the development zone, in the past years the government has hinted at swapping public land in development zones with private land, which will be included in development zones.  Former lands Minister Micheal Falzon had also spoken of the government’s intention to tweak boundaries to accommodate people who were “unfairly left out” in 2016. The SPED in fact is meant to facilitate such a mechanism by not excluding the inclusion of new land in development zones as long as the overall ODZ is not significantly changed.  It remains to be seen whether any revision of the 2006 boundaries will be excluded in the electoral manifestos of the two main parties.

The rural policy

Apart from Zonqor, the major issue with ODZ development in the past three years has been the approval of a rural policy, which facilitates the approval of hundreds of minor developments like farmhouses, petrol stations, stables, agricultural stores and swimming pools. One of the most controversial aspects of the new policy is that it allows the redevelopment of countryside ruins into fully-fledged villas in the most pristine parts of Malta. Also controversial is the legalisation of any building constructed before 1978. This meant that these buildings suddenly also became eligible for ancillary developments like swimming pools.  

Constitutional safeguard

Muscat has also promised to entrench environmental protection in the constitution. It is unclear whether land use issues can be redressed by citizens claiming that the loss of open space violates the constitution. It is also unclear how citizens will have redress to the courts with regard to air quality issues. For example the Environment Resources Authority has recently objected to a project in Spinola because of its negative impact on air quality. Will citizens have the right to challenge in court permits which contribute to air quality deterioration?