Planning Authority sets ‘price’ for amnesty on irregularities

A new legal notice to give Planning Authority power to regularise illegal buildings within development zones

A general amnesty on certain irregularities will be able to be 'purchased' from the PA
A general amnesty on certain irregularities will be able to be 'purchased' from the PA

A new legal notice will give the Planning Authority the power to regularise illegally constructed buildings within development zones, including those in urban conservation areas, against a “fee”. The amnesty even applies to recent illegalities which appear on aerial photos taken by the authority in 2016.

Fees for regularising penthouses are higher than for any other buildings, presumably because of the greater impact such developments have on the streetscape where these are located. 

The regularisation applies to the majority of buildings within the development zones, Planning Authority CEO Johann Buttigieg told MaltaToday when asked how many buildings need to regularise their position. He said that most buildings have some form of illegality, with most irregularities being of a minor nature. 

While the fee imposed on regularising an illegal apartment with a roofed area of 150m2 amounts to €1,500, regularising an illegal penthouse of the same size would cost €6,500. 

Regularising a fully detached villa with a roofed area of 250m2 would cost €5,600.  Regularising a 100m2 boathouse – used by a registered fisherman – will cost €700.

The regularisation is limited to illegalities carried out within the development zone before 2016, including those carried out in urban conservation areas where stricter planning regulations apply on building heights.

It also includes developments which have already been partially regularised by a planning amnesty issued in 2012 which exempted minor developments from pending planning enforcement.

Illegalities outside the development scheme are not eligible for regularisation through the new legal notice.

Illegal developments cannot be regularised if in the opinion of the Authority, the development constitutes an injury to the amenity. The legal notice specifies that the use of these buildings as dwellings, offices or retail outlets is not deemed to constitute an injury to amenity. But the PA cannot regularise other uses (like restaurants) if such use is not permitted in the area by current planning policies. Moreover the PA cannot regularise any commercial development, which has already been served with an enforcement notice. But it can still regularise any kind of dwelling which has been served with an enforcement notice.

The existing development which may be regularised, has to appear in the Authority’s aerial photographs taken in 2016, thereby excluding any future development.

A draft legal notice states that development must be approved following a “recommendation of the Executive Chairperson”, a post presently occupied by Johann Buttigieg. But a PA spokesperson confirmed that in this case this power would be delegated to the planning directorate, which will be issuing a report recommending approval, or disapproval as happens in normal applications presented to the authority. 

Moreover, when the Authority’s Planning Board does not follow the recommendation by the planning directorate, it shall provide the “specific planning reasons” in justifying the overturning of such recommendation. 

In its decision, the authority can impose conditions aimed at improving the design quality of the building and its relationship to its context. 

Whenever the authority decides to approve an application it shall also have the power to impose any condition, which it may deem necessary, including a time frame of two years to execute specific works, failing which the application would be dismissed.

Regularisation also applies to illegal commercial activities and even to illegal dumping. Regularising the dumping of construction waste over 250ms of land within development zones would cost €900. Regularising an illegal public car park over 250 square metres would cost €5,400. Regularising an illegal 1000m2 livestock farm would cost  €3,400.

What has changed?

At present, properties in a state of illegality and which lack a permit, cannot be sold, modified or redeveloped. This renders such buildings uninhabitable while also diminishing their commercial value. 

The planning amnesty through which owners can pay a fine for them to become legal, will allow them to put these properties back on the market.   

In February 2015 the Malta Environment and Planning Authority confirmed that it was considering a procedure through which owners of illegal developments carried out before January 2013 within development zones, and before 1994 in outside development zones (ODZ), could get a full permit after paying a hefty fine.

But the present draft excludes ODZ development from regularisation. This decision could reflect increased awareness on ODZ development following the Zonqor controversy.

Existing legislation introduced by the previous government in 2012 and 2013 only allows owners to request MEPA to refrain from executing an enforcement notice on a number of minor illegalities already defined in the law. In the past three years, MEPA approved 4,006 requests to stop planning enforcements against minor illegalities, such as those being in breach of sanitary regulations due to discrepancies in the size of internal yards or back yards. But these buildings are still technically irregular and cannot be sold as any other legally permitted buildings.