Robert Musumeci, Labour advisor on planning policy, is tops for winning ODZ permits

A MaltaToday study of all planning decisions published on the Planning Authority’s website between 2008 and 2016 found that Robert Musumeci secured 55 such ODZ permits for his clients, out of the total 736 issued by the PA in 2016

As the Labour government’s advisor on planning law, architect Robert Musumeci has also attracted considerable business, specialising in applications outside development zones among other work
As the Labour government’s advisor on planning law, architect Robert Musumeci has also attracted considerable business, specialising in applications outside development zones among other work

One of the Labour government’s main policy advisors on planning laws and reform, the former Nationalist mayor Robert Musumeci, is possibly the most successful architect to secure permits for applications set outside development zones (ODZ).

A MaltaToday study of all planning decisions published on the Planning Authority’s website between 2008 and 2016 found that Musumeci, now a lawyer who also pens a weekly planning law column in this newspaper, secured 55 such ODZ permits for his clients, out of the total 736 issued by the PA in 2016.

He was followed by Labour MP Charles Buhagiar with the second highest tally of 49, and Edwin Mintoff with 29 permits granted.

MaltaToday’s analysis has also shown that the nationwide rate of approval of ODZ permits increased from roughly 22% in 2011 to 55% in 2016, ostensibly on the back of more liberal planning rules allowing construction in rural areas, introduced by the new Labour government.

On the other hand, those ODZ permits refused actually decreased from 18% to 16% during the same period.

While the numbers do seem to be increasing, Musumeci told MaltaToday that he was convinced the majority of ODZ applications are “directly connected to farming activity” and consist mainly of tool rooms, reservoirs, rubble walls, greenhouses and soil reclamation. 

He said the coming into force of the 2014 rural policy guidelines – which broadly regulates countryside development – was the reason for the increase seen in the last two years.

But it is this same policy that has come under fire for making it easier for landowners to build in ODZ land, among them Nationalist MP Toni Bezzina, who relinquished a controversial planning permit under political pressure.

“[The policy] had undoubtedly made it easier for such applications to see the light of day,” said Musumeci, who is the government’s advisor on these policies. “Of course, this prompted an increase in the number of new applications in 2015 and 2016.” 

But marine biologist and environmental campaigner Alan Deidun said the fact that a record number of permits were granted lasted year is worrying, warning of the cumulative effect this would have on undeveloped areas. “We are focusing on big ODZ projects when they are announced, however the footprint of all the small permits granted is probably greater than that of the big projects,” said Deidun. 

Labour MP Charles Buhagiar, who is also chairman of the Building Industry Consultative Council, was the second most successful architect in gaining ODZ permits
Labour MP Charles Buhagiar, who is also chairman of the Building Industry Consultative Council, was the second most successful architect in gaining ODZ permits

The fact that most policies are drawn up by architects is also problematic, argued Deidun, because this means they are skewed towards their own perspective. “The way in which policies are written makes loopholes possible, and architects can get used to them and exploit them in their favour,” Deidun said.

He said the fact that architects like Musumeci occupy advisory roles leads to a conflict of interest. “If you’re an architect and at the same time you are the advisor to the lands department, you have a conflict of interest.”

Musumeci, who also advised on the MEPA demerger and the reform of the Lands Department, argued however that every administration was dependent on the “input of external consultants and non-governmental institutions.”

He noted that his legal and technical contribution must be considered together with the input from other stakeholders who are “equally in touch with the government,” adding that it was only normal for a government to seek input from a “wide range of interests.”

As with ODZ, the remaining categories of permits show granted permits in 2016 at a 10-year high, with 6,293 applications being approved, up from 3,147 in 2012. 

The trend is down to several factors according to Musumeci. “The number of planning applications is a direct variant of the state of the construction industry. It is worth recalling that 2008-2013 marked a period of great political instability which was reflected in a lack of economic confidence.”

He also underscored the effect of policy changes, such as new sanitary procedures, revised application procedures and the new Development Planning Act as contributing to these fluctuations.

Musumeci warned however against drawing conclusions based solely on the number of permits granted. 

“[One would need to consider the] exact number of applications concurrently awaiting decision and actually decided by the Environment and Planning Review Tribunal,” he said.

This was echoed by architect Michael Falzon, also a MaltaToday columnist and former Nationalist minister who devised the Planning Authority, who said that considering the number of permits granted in isolation could be misleading as there are “too many factors to consider.”

“It’s not enough to simply look at the number... You must consider how many permits are being applied for. Today there is more of an attraction for people to invest in buildings so it stands to reason that people are submitting more applications.”

Falzon’s firm, Falzon & Cutajar, was granted the highest number of permits in all categories in 2016, with the firm being listed in 171 permits that were green-lighted. The second highest number of permits were granted to Emanuel Vella (140), followed by Saviour Micallef with 122 permits.

Falzon pointed out that a washroom permit was issued just like it would for a high-rise construction, emphasising that the majority of the work his firm was engaged for over the past four years consisted of relatively small jobs. “Our practice doesn’t really take on many big jobs. 50 permits for small projects will probably not generate the revenue that one hotel permit does for example,” he said.

Despite the high number of permits granted, Falzon said that the PA was becoming too inconsistent in how it determines whether or not to grant a permit. “It was never consistent, but it is getting worse again to the point that it’s difficult to give clients good advice,” he said. 

Falzon said that differences in policy interpretation from one case officer to the next were a contributing factor, describing decisions as subjective. “I could submit an application in one locality and have it refused only for an identical one to be granted in another area.”

1,509 permits have been approved so far in 2017, 196 of which are ODZ applications. Both Musumeci and Deidun said they couldn’t see there being a drop in permits granted this year. 

“There has always been a trend where the number of ODZ permits granted spikes in the year before an election. I expect it to be higher this year, both because of the election and because applicants have gotten used to the revised ODZ guidelines,” said Deidun. 

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