The PS with a hot potato | Michael Farrugia

Is Labour pro-environment or pro-construction? Michael Farrugia insists that he will pass the test if he is criticised by both developers and environmentalists.

Parliamentary secretary Michael Farrugia.
Parliamentary secretary Michael Farrugia.

From ambitious plans on land reclamation and agritourism to quicker permits and lower planning tariffs, the new government seems bent on kick-starting the economic engine by giving the embattled construction industry a new lease on life.

For this reason as the Parliamentary Secretary responsible for the Malta Environment and Planning Authority and the Lands Department, the affable Michael Farrugia occupies a pivotal role, which is underlined by the location of his office at Castille.

Michael Farrugia, gives the impression that he is genuinely interested in striking a balance between reviving the fortunes of the construction industry and environmental protection, a task which has eluded Nationalist ministers.

Midway through the interview I ask him the question which is making environmentalists turn in their sleep; Is Labour in debt with building contractors, who are said to have subsidised a substantial part of the party's expensive electoral campaign?

"In my meetings with contractors nobody was granted anything which he or she did not deserve," is Farrugia's succinct reply, a declaration which in itself confirms that there is there is nothing out of the ordinary for Farrugia in meeting contractors.

But were the expectations of some contractors raised by an electoral campaign in which Labour was clearly pandering for their vote?

The PS acknowledges that the decreased tariffs have encouraged some developers to come forward with big projects "but that does not mean that all projects are acceptable."

Surely Farrugia does not feel the same bond with the people now visiting his office that he used to feel with his patients.

Michael Farrugia has completely given up his private practice as a family doctor and expresses a sense of regret at losing that special bond he had with the families, which he regularly visited in their homes.

"When I visited people's homes, I did so more as a member of their family than as a doctor... They talked to me not just about medical problems but about social, financial and family problems."

This is entirely different from the human dynamics he experiences in his office.

"Sitting on this chair I meet many people who come to talk to me. I listen to them and give them advice, sometimes telling them that I can't do anything about their problem, but this is a completely different bond than that of a family doctor.  People now enter and leave my office with a completely different attitude."

A health minister under Alfred Sant, Michael Farrugia has shadowed practically all areas in the social sector, with the exception of education.

It was Farrugia who asked Muscat to change his area of competence when he appointed his first shadow cabinet in 2008.

"I firmly believe that a politician should not be attached to one particular sector." Subsequently Farrugia was appointed to shadow the consumer rights and ICT portfolio. 

Once again Farrugia finds himself in brand new territory, as Muscat's junior minister for planning and simplification, a strategic sector in the government's plans to promote economic growth. The importance of Farrugia's portfolio is highlighted by the fact that his private secretariat forms part of the Office of the Prime Minister in Castille.

But doesn't he see himself as a complete outsider in the planning sector?

"Being perceived as an outsider in this case is a benefit... as one can see things from the same perspective as the people out there and not as someone who is ingrained in the system. It is more difficult for insiders to change things and think out of the box than outsiders who are more in tune with people's perceptions. The best way to implement change is through the input of someone outside the system who can rely on the co-operation of insiders who are receptive to change."

He also clearly underlines his priorities.

"What is important is not how much one is familiar with existing structures but how far one is willing to change a structure like MEPA to be more efficient, consumer friendly and less bureaucratic."

But planning is ultimately about taking decisions, which affect both developers and the environment. Does Farrugia's heart beat for development or for environmental protection?

"This is a fine line... my heart will beat well when I am criticised by both environmentalists and developers. That is the best sign that I am on the right path."

But isn't Malta already too developed?

"That is why we will be taking various initiatives... that is why we are taking decisions like allowing two extra storeys on existing hotels within development zones instead of encouraging more hotels to be built."

But would this not result in more construction in urban areas, with an impact on the skyline?

"That is why we are excluding urban conservation areas and development impacting on historical landscapes."

Malta passed through a construction boom after the relaxation of height regulations in 2005 and the extension of development boundaries in 2006. This resulted in an oversupply of properties despite the large number of vacant properties. Can we afford to continue building more?

Farrugia says he is concerned by the impact of overdevelopment.

"When I walk through our streets I am disturbed by the seeing entire roads marked by two-storey developments suddenly interrupted by a higher building... this offends my architectural tastes and harms the identity of our towns."

He argues that his primary concern when introducing the new tariffs was to save the village cores. In fact one of the new measures was to exempt developers proposing renovation of existing houses in village cores from paying any fees as long as no demolition takes place.

"What we would like is to discourage demolition of old houses and encourage the building industry to renovate existing buildings."

He also argues that the greatest reductions on tariffs are those affecting businesses and industry and not sheer speculation.

I point out to Farrugia that the government has also significantly lowered the tariffs for penthouse developments, which not only impact on the skyline but also deny access to solar energy.

Farrugia is quick to point out that the previous government increased tariffs on penthouses in an "exaggerated way."

But wasn't this justified in view of the impact of penthouses on both townscapes and solar rights?

Farrugia replies that he finds nothing wrong in penthouses as long as these are built in areas where such development is allowed.

What Farrugia would like to change is the calculation based on number of storeys rather than the actual height.

"One should refer to height, not the number of storeys."

He also envisions rules regulating the size of apartments in view of the large number of doll-sized apartments which have been build in the past years.

"Should we keep the present minimum floor space or should we increase it so that we have better quality apartments?"

Farrugia thinks it is justified to allow smaller apartments in particular areas like that around the university, which cater for categories like Gozitan students studying in Malta but doubts whether such standards are acceptable in other areas in Malta.

He also thinks that the construction of very small apartments is a major contributing factor to the high number of vacant properties as nobody is interested in buying these doll-sized apartments.

What plans does the government have to address the high number of vacant properties?

One of the initiatives taken by the government will be identification of vacant buildings in Valletta with the aim of making them habitable again through restoration and not by demolishing them.

But the latest census shows that a large number of vacant properties were built quite recently. How can these be put back in the market?

"One should ask what kind of properties are these? There is a reason why these properties were never sold and the reason is that these are too small."

Farrugia plans to issue new guidelines for agritourism.

Couldn't this be used as a pretext for more development outside development zones, as happened previously when a number of ODZ structures were developed under the pretext of developing stables?

Farrugia insists that this can be easily avoided by enforcing laws against illegal development.

"The present law already gives us the power to ensure that if any illegal development takes place, one would not be able to apply for a permit before the situation is redressed to what it was before the development took place."

He makes it clear that this principle will be retained.

"We cannot go back to the system where developers used to first build illegally and then apply to sanction."

But with reference to agritourism, what does the new government have in mind - small hotels in the countryside or simply the renovation of existing farm houses?

"Surely we do not have in mind hotels in the middle of the countryside... What we are talking about are farms offering a number of limited beds to tourists..."

Farrugia admits that he has already been faced with proposals of agritourism, which include hotels in ODZ areas, and he makes it clear that this is not the kind of development which will be allowed.

The new government has also announced that in the near future it will issue a call for expression of interest for a land-reclamation project. Farrugia defends the government's decision not to issue any guidelines on what sort development will be permitted.

"We will leave prospective bidders free to use their imagination without interfering... We will then conduct a holistic economic, social and environmental evaluation of these projects. If the project is sustainable on all these fronts we will move forward. "

Would it not make more sense to identify a site where this project can take place before issuing a call for expression of interest?

"No... I prefer that people come up with their own ideas as I do not want to give a direction... What we will be doing is to specify where land reclamation cannot take place not where it can take place."

Farrugia explains that the government is currently evaluating plans to identify areas where it cannot take place due to maritime and infrastructural reasons.

"No-go areas include the entrance to the Grand Harbour and Marsaxlokk Harbour, as land reclamation could impinge on ships entering the harbour or the free port. In other places we have identified the location of submarine cables."

One of the problems which will emerge is that a large part of the Maltese coastline is surrounded by EU-protected marine habitats, which include posidenia meadows.

Farrugia does not categorically exclude these areas.

"We will be evaluating all these things. We will first identify those zones which are clearly no-go areas. Then we will leave it up to the developers to come up with viable proposals, which we will than assess holistically."

The EU Commission recently called for "close monitoring of developments in the Maltese property market, in view of its exposure of the financial sector." Would this sort of development make Malta more economically dependent on construction?

"This is why we will be evaluating the proposal to ensure that we prioritise the needs of the country."

He points out that Malta is different from Monaco, which is also going in this direction.

"Contrary to Malta, Monaco needs more space for residential buildings and will be reclaiming land for this purpose. We do not want land reclamation simply to build more apartments on reclaimed land. We want development which has a positive impact on the economy."

So why not exclude real estate as an acceptable use beforehand?

Farrugia would not exclude very high quality upmarket residential development on reclaimed land, but he makes it clear that he would not favour land reclamation, which is done entirely for this purpose.

"I would surely prefer something which is much more innovative than this."

One of the first reforms on which the government is working is to simplify the permit system in a way that permits within development zones which conform to the local plans are issued immediately after a screening process, thus removing the 12-week period in which permits are currently processed after the completion of the screening process.

Farrugia makes it clear that a case officer who would ensure that any proposed plan conforms to existing policies will vet all applications. If a plan is deemed to conform to these policies, he would give his stamp of approval. Subsequently the same plans will be vetted by another person to ensure that the decision of the case officer is crosschecked. If the two officials give their go-ahead a permit will be issued.

Will this system militate against the rights of objectors?

Farrugia makes it clear that applications will still be published in newspapers and objectors will have three weeks to present submissions.

"If someone presents an objection, the application will have to pass through the whole process. If there is no objection and if their plans conform to plans, why should we further delay the process by six months when a permit can be issued immediately?"

Farrugia describes his advisor on planning issues, architect Robert Musumeci, a former Nationalist mayor who was often at loggerheads with the green lobby, as a reference point.

"Whenever I need an opinion or clarification of a law which is different from that offered by technocrats at MEPA, I seek Musumeci's advice... It is a way of bouncing ideas with both people in MEPA and people outside MEPA."

Musumeci is still working gratis and no contract has been signed yet to regulate his position.

"Probably if he accepts I find no problem with formalising this relationship with a contract but I would also like to thank him for the long hours he dedicated without any form of remuneration, sometimes working till the middle of the night... He is a very dedicated person with whom I do not always agree but whom I can trust."

Another hot potato inherited by Farrugia is the illegal shantytown of Armier. Prior to the election the PL ratified a previous agreement signed in 2007 with Armier Developments Limited.

"I am ready to hear what they have to say," says Farrugia with reference to a meeting with the Armier lobby, which is expected to take place in the coming weeks.

He also makes it clear that the agreements between the PL and the Armier squatters never envisioned the demolition and rebuilding of all the beach rooms, as proposed by the previous government.

Wouldn't the regularisation of this illegality send a negative message to the country that illegality is rewarded?

"That is why we have to evaluate this issue. We should not forget that a number of buildings constructed by big developers have been sanctioned in the past. Should we apply the same yardstick to this development?"

One determining factor is the date when the beach rooms were built. Farrugia hints that he agrees with a cut-off, through which only development carried out before that date would be sanctioned.

"Surely we cannot sanction rooms which were built after clear permit rules applying to all developments in Malta came in to place." But Farrugia is wary of any commitments before a proper evaluation has been carried out. 

Huwa veru li il-MEPA hija patata taħraq ħafna speċjalment fejn jidħlu permessi għall bini f'postijiet li minkejja li huma fl-ODZ,dawn kienu jikkwalifikaw biex jiġi inkluzi skont il-kriterji li kien għamel il-kabinett stess u li għall xi raġunijiet li kienu jafuhom biss dawk li ħallew dawn is-siti barra minkejja li kienu siti zgħir u kienu jinkwadraw perfettament ma dawk il-kriterji,dawn għandhom jiġu inkluzi mingħajr dewmien ,għax dawn ma kienux ta' spekulaturi ,izda ta nies li ma kinux lesta jxaħħmu biex għall-plots tagħhom jinħareġ il-permess. Ara fuq siti fi green area għax kienu ta'bazuzli Nazzjonalisti,inharġlhom il-permess fi zmien qasir.
What disturbs me most is that while developers are being given concessions in one form or the other by this and the previous administration, none of the big parties have given any thought of balancing this act with restoration of tracts of our countryside to their natural state. And by natural state, I do not mean by establishing family parks and gardening areas. Our ravaged natural environment in no longer in a state to regenerate itself without professional and scientific assistance.