[WATCH] Change in building heights policy could result in compensation claims running into billions, Aaron Farrugia warns

Xtra on TVM | Environment Minister Aaron Farrugia and Opposition spokesperson Robert Cutajar spar on planning, development and the environment

Environment Minister Aaron Farrugia
Environment Minister Aaron Farrugia

Reversing building rights acquired 16 years ago as a result of policy changes will result in hefty compensation claims, Aaron Farrugia has warned. 

Addressing criticism that the Planning Authority was aiding the ‘uglification’ of towns through permits that allowed higher buildings, the Environment Minister said any policy intervention required a “mature” discussion.

Farrugia was speaking on TVM’s Xtra, which also hosted Opposition environment spokesperson Robert Cutajar.

A policy change in 2005 allowed three-storey buildings to add a fourth floor and overlying penthouse, which set in motion a fresh building boom in various localities. In 2006, tracts of land were added into the building schemes, while in 2015, changes in storey heights encouraged the redevelopment of buildings in urban areas to include more floors.

Farrugia said these policy changes over the years meant thousands of families acquired new rights to redevelop their buildings or build on land that was now developable.

“Shall we compensate these families with billions of euros to rescind the rights they acquired? Shall we take back those rights? This is why we need to sit down and have a mature discussion that goes beyond complaints of uglification and urban sprawl,” the minister said.

It was President George Vella who recently waded into the controversy when he criticised a planning application for the redevelopment of a low-rise building in his hometown Żejtun into a five-storey block of flats.

“I understand why people are criticising us for overdevelopment, including the President, but this requires a mature discussion,” he insisted.

Farrugia said under his leadership, the fuel stations policy was changed and no new projects of this nature could be built in outside development zones.

He said the rural policy was in the process of being amended and a review of the overarching planning policy, SPED, was underway.

Confronted by Moviment Graffitti’s Andre Callus on the application for three apartment blocks in Sannat, which were filed separately to evade having to do an environmental impact assessment, Farrugia said the land in question was within the development zone.

Opposition spokesperson Robert Cutajar
Opposition spokesperson Robert Cutajar

Nationalist MP Robert Cutajar accused government of failing to find the right balance between development and planning.

“We [the PN in government] were not perfect but if there were problems, why didn’t a Labour government fix them over the past eight years?”

He said the party will come out with its own proposals but shied away from saying whether he agreed with NGOs that the Environment and Resources Authority should be given a veto to stop planning applications.

Referring to a private member’s Bill filed recently by the Opposition to have ERA meetings held in public, Cutajar urged the minister to support the proposal.
Farrugia was non-committal.