Activists sound alarm on legal change for developers regularising ODZ illegalities

A new legal amendment will allow property developers to regularise sites in ODZ in exchange for a fine

The Planning Authority has extended a regularisation scheme from 2016 to include properties that encroached on ODZ
The Planning Authority has extended a regularisation scheme from 2016 to include properties that encroached on ODZ

Several organisations are sounding the alarm bells over a legal amendment that will allow developers to pay a fine in exchange for regularising their sites built on undevelopable land.

This new scheme expands on a 2016 regularisation scheme and will allow developers who built on sites which encroach on the Outside Development Zone (ODZ) to pay a fine to legalise their irregularities.

The original scheme was only limited to sites within development boundaries, but has now been widened to sites which encroach on ODZ and will include illegal development, according to the 15 organisations.

The organistions who raised concern on the scheme are: ACT Malta; Azzjoni: Tuna Artna Lura; BirdLife Malta; Din l-Art Ħelwa; Flimkien għal Ambjent Aħjar; Friends of the Earth Malta; Għaqda għall-Ġustizzja, Ugwaljanza u Paċi; Għawdix; Malta Youth in Agriculture; Moviment Graffitti; Nature Trust – FEE Malta; Ramblers’ Association Malta; Rota; The Archaeological Society Malta; Wirt Għawdex.

The organisations pointed out that the scheme’s public consultation was a sham, with stakeholders given a 14-day period to submit their objections to the scheme.

“Policies which are supposed to prevent such development from being allowed will now be overruled by developers seeking to regularise their illegal developments in exchange for a paltry fine,” the organisations said.

They pointed out that the new scheme will be offered for properties that were served with enforcement notices predating 2016, as long as the developer has a pre-2016 permit in hand. Regularisation requests are not published, unlike planning applications, and the public cannot make objections during a representation period. Decisions by the Planning Commission on these applications cannot be appealed either.

According to the Planning Authority, the scheme was widened with the intention of accommodating property owners who are not able to place their property on the market, or acquire a bank loan for their property, due to an irregularity which is non-sanctionable and took place before 2016.

“Rather than closing down the 2016 regularisation scheme as was originally promised, the government has instead decided to further widen its already contested scope. While its lenient readings of its own policies and its failure to enforce rules have already weakened ODZ boundaries over the years, the PA is now going to fuel more ODZ development if the amendment becomes law.”

The organisations added that the Planning Authority’s function is to ensure developers fall in line with policies meant to safeguard the environment. Helping business in the property market is not within its remit.

“What is even more shameful is that the Labour Party, headed by former PA lawyer and current prime minister Robert Abela, had promised stricter controls on ODZ development during this year’s general election.”

They warned that the scheme will result in the legal approval of thousands of additional illegal developments. “Our ODZ boundaries must be protected, and we insist that this amendment must not be allowed to go through.”

PA replies to statement

In a statement, the authority said it would like to clarify that the proposed amendments are only being widened to include pre-August 2016 developments which have their site perimeter partially beyond the development boundaries as well developments located entirely within a Category 1 Rural Settlement or included in the 2006 Local Plans.

“The category of development which are partially located outside development zone

Boundary can only be regularised if these were originally covered with a development permit. Therefore, the regulations as proposed only seek the regularisation for deviations from the original permit, and no such regularisation applies for developments for which no permit exists on the site. Additionally, sites completely located outside the development zone boundary shall not be eligible for regularisation,” it said.

The PA said introduction of these regulations did not accommodate ‘big developers’ as claimed by the eNGOs but were clearly targeted to address relatively minor, non-conformant issues that households are facing when coming to sell, or use their property as a guarantee for finance. “Infact, since the introduction of these regulations in 2016, the Authority received over 19,500 applications.”

“The Authority refutes the claim that ‘Regularisation requests are not published, unlike

planning applications, and the public cannot make objections during a representation period.’ All regularisation applications are published weekly and the public can submit an objection. Additionally, same as with PA applications, a site notice is affixed to the site of any property seeking to be regularise.”