Planning Authority still assessing feedback on ODZ policy change four years on

The incomplete reform process to close loopholes in the ODZ policy has been passed on from one minister to another responsible for planning since 2017

Policy allowing countryside ruins to turn into villas remains in force as reform is stuck in limbo
Policy allowing countryside ruins to turn into villas remains in force as reform is stuck in limbo

A government pledge to reform the policy regulating outside development zones is stuck in limbo with the Planning Authority still assessing feedback four years on. 

The ODZ policy was enacted in 2014 to regulate rural development but loopholes allowed countryside ruins to magically be turned into villas with pools. The applicant only had to prove that the existing building, or the remains, were habitable at some point. 

This created absurd situations with applicants presenting old electoral registers, parish documents and other documentation going back decades to prove that someone lived in the place.  

But the rural policy also paved the way for a proliferation of agricultural stores, sometimes used for recreational purposes. 

In June 2020, the PA issued a draft policy document for consultation with aim of closing the loopholes. But four years on the authority has told MaltaToday it is still analysing the feedback received. 

The authority is still “assessing the submissions received during the second stage of public consultation”, a spokesperson for the Planning Authority said, confirming the reform is still in the pipeline. 

He added that the PA is considering a range of policy options to address the issues raised. 

“On completion of this task, a revised draft policy will be published for consultation again,” the spokesperson said. 

No timeframe was provided for the completion of this process. 

Sources inside the PA told MaltaToday a major difficulty faced by planners is how to avoid abuse by people posing as farmers, to get permits for ‘stores’ enclosed behind rubble walls in pristine areas, without penalising genuine farmers who need storage space. 

Intent to change policy floated in 2017 

The intention to change the policy was first announced in 2017 by former minister José Herrera after noting with “alarm” the findings of a MaltaToday probe showing that the Environment and Resources Authority had been ignored by the PA in 69% of approved applications outside development zones (ODZ). 

Herrera appointed a board tasked with investigating the 2014 policy, but the formal process to change the controversial rules was started late in October 2019 by his successor Ian Borg. 

The 2019 process started after public outrage at a permit for construction magnate Joseph Portelli to turn ruins in a Qala field into a villa. 

Although Portelli later withdrew the Qala application, the policy permitting similar developments remains in place. 

The only notable change was the appointment by former environment and planning minister Aaron Farrugia, of a new board responsible for ODZ permits, chaired by veteran planner Martin Camilleri. The latter adopted a stricter interpretation of the 2014 policy than that of former chairman Elisabeth Ellul, who was transferred to another board responsible for regularising minor illegalities. 

But although the board is more judicious in applying the 2014 policy it still issued several controversial permits. For example, in 2023 the PA had approved an ODZ villa with pool in a narrow rural alley in San Gwann instead of an illegally extended farmhouse, which according to the case officer originally consisted of a 15sq.m room.  

The villa was approved under Section 6.2 of the 2014 Rural Policy and Design Guidance, which allows for the redevelopment of existing buildings in ODZ areas subject to conditions such as proof that the existing building was used as a permanent residence. 

Over four years have passed since the conclusion of a six-week public consultation on the draft policy published in July 2020. The draft was hailed by then planning minister Aaron Farrugia as one minimising development in rural areas and “limiting it to genuine projects”. 

Proposed draft prevents ruins from turning into villas 

If approved the new policy would preclude the repetition of egregious cases in which the Planning Authority’s planning commission approved the reconstruction of ruins, even rubble piles, into brand new villas with swimming pools. 

As proposed in 2020 the policy  prevents dilapidated ‘ruins’ from being turned into an ODZ villa.  The new policy proposes that small extensions may be granted to these dwellings if they are covered by planning permission and are inhabited at the time the proposal is submitted.   

The 2020 policy draft also militates against the mushrooming of ‘stores’ by people posing as farmers or who possess very little farmland to justify erecting a new building.   

Under the proposed policy, stables will only be allowed within the defined boundary of a legally established rural dwelling. The old policy permitted stables outside the boundary of rural dwellings. 

And it no longer permits the conversion of disused livestock farms into brand new dwellings, or new tourist accommodation facilities in the countryside, by limiting agritourism to existing buildings. 

Environmental NGOs welcomed the changes but proposed removing the automatic right for ODZ dwellings or fronting the ODZ boundary, to have a pool. Several developments including ODZ pools have been approved in Gozo in the past few years. NGOs had also called for the removal of zoos from the list of developments which can be allowed in the ODZ. 


  • September 2014 Government approves rural policy guidelines. 

  • April 2017 Environment Minister Jose Herrera announces board tasked with investigating rural policy. 

  • October 2019 Outrage on permit for villa instead of Qala ruin triggers formal procedure for policy change. 

  • July 2020 Environment and Planning Minister Aaron Farrugia presents new draft closing a number of loopholes. 

  • April 2021 A spokesperson for the PA attributed the delay in the approval of the new policy to the time needed to assess the “voluminous” submissions. 

  • October 2022 PA spokesperson tells MaltaToday the authority is still assessing the feedback from the public on the policy reform. 

  • June 2024 PA spokesperson says the authority is still considering submissions presented four years ago.