[WATCH] Making planning faster | Johann Buttigieg

The Planning Authority’s chief executive officer, Johann Buttigieg talks about the PA’s plans for a new summary procedure for permits in development zones and announces plans for an amnesty of illegalities located within development zones

Planning Authority CEO Johann Buttigieg
Planning Authority CEO Johann Buttigieg
Making planning faster • Video by Ray Attard

The controversial demerger of MEPA which saw MP Marlene Farrugia resign from the Labour Party, has been marketed by government as a way to strengthen the environment.

Following the demerger earlier this month, previous MEPA chief executive officer Johann Buttigieg will be now leading the new Planning Authority.  

Sustainable development remains one of the authority’s favourite buzzwords but if the environment and planning are equally important shouldn’t the new Environment Authority have a power to veto development if it disagrees with it?

“The role of the Environment Authority is to protect the environment. The role of the Planning Authority is to strike a balance which takes account of planning, environment, social and economic development. In the past the environment directorate did not have a power to appeal MEPA’s decision. Now it has the power to appeal (in front of the Environment and Planning Review Tribunal) against decisions taken by the PA.”

One of the most radical changes to be introduced in the next weeks is the so-called “summary procedure.”

This fast track procedure will apply to applications for development within development zones but not located in urban conservation areas and will be limited to any development which amounts to fewer than 16 apartments.

“If you are proposing a development in the development zone, you are not in the urban conservation or villa area and your proposal is in line with plans and policies, the application will be assessed through this procedure,” according to Buttigieg.

Buttigieg points out that the procedure will also apply to Development Notifications for minor developments such as washrooms and air-conditioning units which are already approved in the absence of pblic hearings. He points out that in this case the new reform will ensure greater transparency as residents will be informed of any such development.

Buttigieg insists that the new system still has safeguards against abuse because each application will still pass the scrutiny of three persons: the case officer who will consider whether it conforms to existing policies, his senior who will endorse the report and finally the chairperson of the Planning Commission.

He also points out that the public will still be able to present objections.

“If someone files a valid objection and the chairperson agrees, the application will be processed through the regular procedure which includes a public hearing.”

But more pertinently, does the PA have the resources to ensure that normal permits are issued in 12 weeks without any slackening in standards?

“I believe that the media and general public will be our watchdogs,” replies the executive chairman.

To make the new timeframes binding, the PA will even be fining itself in case of delays: €25 a day in the case of applications issued through the summary procedure, €100 a day in the case of normal applications, a €500 a day in the case of major projects. These amounts will be automatically deducted from the bill paid by the applicant.

The Development Planning Act gives the minister responsible for planning – in this case the Prime Minister or his parliamentary secretary – the ultimate power to issue new rules to regularise illegal developments.  

Are plans to regularise illegal developments announced last year still in the pipeline?

The executive chairman points out that a legal notice will be issued soon but the “regularisation” will be limited to illegal developments carried out within development zones and will not apply to ODZ development. 

The regularisation will also apply to developments carried out before a certain date and will not apply to developments which have a negative impact on the environment.

Asked about the Armier boathouses, Buttigieg replies that this is a decision which has to be taken at a political level, and that there are more pressing priorities like policies encouraging economic development and improving the quality of life.

In November 2013, with the help of the Armed Forces of Malta, the then MEPA was meant to pull down illegally erected structures at Montekristo, one of which was a four-storey tower, dubbed ‘the De Redin tower’.  Two years down the line have any structures been pulled down?  

Buttigieg replies by expressing satisfaction that during his term as CEO illegal development in this location has not increased.  

“We have at least contained it…and some structures have also been demolished. These included a 130 foot roofed structure and the foundations of another structure.  Part of this has been demolished by us and a part by (the owner) Charles Polidano himself. We have also stopped the operations related to the zoo.”

He also points out that the containment of illegalities in the area was the result of increased vigilance. There have even been instances where some alteration works were taking place after 9pm during the change of shifts. Subsequently a 24/7 watch was introduced for six months. Buttigieg also insists that daily fines are applicable and these have already accumulated to more than €250,000 which includes the costs of the police watch. MEPA has also initiated legal action and now the PA has the executive authority to sequester Polidano’s assets.

He also insists that the second incident involving a big cat attacking a child took place despite increased supervision, which included two spot checks by MEPA officers to ensure that the zoo remains closed, held during the previous week which coincided with the hunting festival.  

“We had no clue that the zoo would open again on Sunday. Otherwise we would have acted.”

Shouldn’t public activities in a building riddled with illegalities be banned in the first place?  Buttigieg replies by pointing out that permits are only issued for activities and functions which are being held in the “legal” parts of the site.

“We have to distinguish between the illegal and the legal part which falls under one single ownership.”

Back in 2013 Buttigieg confirmed that MEPA was holding talks with Polidano about the illegal development, “discussing what simply could not be tolerated and what could possibly be sanctioned”. What was the result of these talks?

“The discussions are still ongoing. We have to keep in mind we are not talking of one dwelling or residence but on a whole estate. Where illegalities were allowed to happen for a number of years cannot just be stopped…”

Don’t you understand that the public resents the practice of regularising illegalities?

“Our position on Montekristo is that only things which can be sanctioned according to policy can be regularised. The rest has to be removed. We will only reguralise any development at Montekristo if illegalities which defy policies and cannot be regularised are removed. But it does not make sense to remove illegal development which can be re-erected according to policies.”

But while the MEPA reform bill of 2010 included the sixth schedule, which effectively prevented MEPA from regularising ODZ developments, the new law does not include such a clause.

“It does not make sense to stop people from sanctioning development which can be regularised according to policies. What we are saying now is that one should pay a hefty fine for illegalities to serve as a deterrent, demolish what can’t be sanctioned and seek a permit for what can be regularised according to policy.  If I am going to give you a permit in two months’ time, what sense does it make to ask the owner to have it demolished before the permit is issued?”

Wasn’t it even a greater deterrent to stop the PA from sanctioning ODZ developments?

“No… it simply resulted in a situation where people were not even applying to redress the situation. This resulted in a situation where the illegalities were simply left there. Owners were simply expecting the PA to demolish the illegalities instead of taking steps to remove them and regularise their position. But what is completely illegal and cannot be regularised according to existing policies has to be demolished.”

In July 2014 the MEPA fined owners of illegal billboards €400 each for ignoring the June 20 deadline for their removal. But instead of coming down, the number of billboards continued to increase, what does the latest legal notice change?  

“Clearly the €400 deterrent was not an effective one. The deterrent was ignored as people were paying the fine and still put up their bill boards.”

Buttigieg explains that the previous law contained a number of loopholes through which non-commercial billboards could be set up without any need of a planning permit. What happened was that commercial billboards were often turned in to non-commercial ones, thus invalidating PA’s enforcement. He also explains that enforcing the legality of each billboard to check whether these are commercial or not is taxing on an authority which would rather focus on more serious infringements outside development zones. The Planning Authority’s current enforcement division consists of 34 officials who have to monitor the whole country.

What effectively changes with the new legal notice is that non-commercial billboards will need the same permit as commercial ones. He also refers to the problem that different permits have been issued by different authorities in the past decades.

“Everyone has been given the chance to register the permit they have at present so we can take stock of the situation. We have given everyone the chance to check the validity of their permits before taking action.”

He also points out that the PA had issued around 300 permits for billboards in the past years.

“We have come to the absurd situation where illegal billboards have been set up in front of legal ones.”

The other change is that the €400 fine for setting up an illegal billboard has been raised to €1,000. How sure is Buttigieg that this will now be an effective deterrent considering that the previous one had failed?

“We have to wait and see…The first time it was €400, this time we have raised it to €1,000, we can even raise it to €2,000…I don’t think billboard owners will be happy to pay these fines.”

Writing in the annual report for 2014 the PA CEO wrote that he expected the technical finalisation of the draft local plans setting new planning parameters like building heights in different areas had to be completed by June 2015. Subsequently the plans were to be approved by the government. What happened to this process?  

Buttigieg reveals that the first technical assessment of the new local plans is already in hand. He also points out that the process has been delayed by the fact that the planning sector has seen a change of three junior ministries following a reshuffle which had seen Michael Falzon replacing Michael Farrugia and subsequently Deborah Schembri taking Falzon’s place following the latter’s resignation.

“I need time to brief the politicians on these changes.  We had to delay the process to ensure that the work is done properly…”

Buttigieg is non-committal on a time frame. “Hopefully work on the local plans will now continue when the dust settles down.”

One of the most contentious issues is whether development boundaries will be adjusted again. Government sources have recently confirmed that the ongoing ‘tweaking’ of development zones is to be compensated for by redrawing the boundaries of ODZ (outside development zones) elsewhere, including new zones while removing others.

“What we are saying is that wherever you have an already protected area within the development zone, we will remove it from the zone as it cannot be developed, while other areas which do not merit that kind of protection which were not included in the development zones because of an oversight in the 2006 local plans will be included… But the underlying understanding is that the development zone will remain the same size as today.”

Has the PA identified the areas which will be added to the development zone?

“We have identified the areas which can be excluded from the development zones but we have not yet identified which areas will be added to the development zone.”

Will the process be concluded by 2018? 

“I think we will have a draft.”

He also points out that according to the new law the whole process will be submitted to public consultation and be open to the public, including the final draft, in a way that no changes will be made after the final round of consultation as happened in 2006. 

Another policy vacuum in the past was that on ODZ petrol stations.  In fact a number of these were approved in the absence of policy guidelines.  But does it make sense now to allow 3,000 square metre petrol stations in ODZ areas?

“3,000 square metres is the maximum limit allowed. It does not mean that all applications will be of this size or that they will all be approved and so far all the applications presented have been refused. But we have to give people the tools with which they can work. There can be particular cases where a 3,000 square metre petrol station can be justified and others not.”

I point out that while originally in the draft consultation document only re-located petrol stations could be built up in ODZ, (new petrol stations were restricted to areas of containment and industrial zones) this was changed to allow brand new petrol stations in ODZ land adjacent or opposite these industrial areas.

“This change was made following discussion in the parliamentary select committee. PA’s advice was different but the select committee had a different opinion.”

Don’t you think that policies allowing the rebuilding of ODZ buildings in the countryside, which are practically ruins or rubble, can pave the way for the urbanisation of the countryside? 

As an example I mention a 165 square metre villa with pool in Wied Busbies approved in a buffer zone to an Area of Ecological Importance instead of three derelict rooms.

“I agree with this policy. It makes sense to allow people to rehabilitate old buildings and ruins. It is only fair to allow people to repair old buildings. What I can’t understand is that some people were allowed to restore old properties while others were allowed to develop 600 square metres of land.”

I point out that the Planning Directorate is often at loggerheads with the Environment Planning Commission on similar permits.

“The Planning Directorate is often cautious. But if the applicant brings sufficient evidence to prove that the development respects approved policies, the board can take a favourable decision.”

He also points out that if it is proved that the information provided to the board is false, the PA would have no qualms in revoking a permit. 

When asked about his role in the choice of site of Zonqor for the proposed educational institute, Johann Buttigieg does not shrug off responsibility.

“I take full responsibility for the site selection exercise.” 

He also insists that the Zonqor site was recommended by his office.

“I can assure you that our site selection was even more thorough than that approved in EIAs conducted by the private sector.

“Our site selection was limited to sites which are under government ownership and did not require any expropriation.”

He also insists that the forthcoming Environment Impact Assessment will also consider alternative sites to Zonqor as required in procedure for impact assessments.