15 organisations sound alarm on plan to regularise ODZ illegalities

Environmentalists, activists insisted on Thursday the PA should ensure developers fall in line with policies meant to safeguard the environment. File photo of a protest banner: Times of Malta

A group of 15 organisations is calling on people to object to what they are calling the Planning Authority’s “decision to give an early Christmas gift to law-breaking developers”.

Earlier this month, the PA announced that a scheme allowing property owners to pay to have their building illegalities ignored will be extended to properties that are partially in Outside Development Zone areas.

According to 15 environmental and activist organisations, the amendment will wipe out ODZ boundaries and regularise more illegal development.

The public consultation “sham, amounting to a ridiculous 14-day period”, will close on 21 November, meaning that the public’s objection to this “atrocious scheme” is as urgent as it can possibly be, they said in a statement.

Representations are to be sent to [email protected].

“With the PA’s proposed amendments to the 2016 Regularisation of Existing Development Regulations, a scheme which was supposed to last only two years but was extended indefinitely, developers who built on sites which are ‘partially’ in ODZ will now also be able to pay a fine to legalise their irregularities.

“While the original 2016 regularisation scheme only accepted sites within development boundaries, the new scheme refers to sites which encroach on ODZ and will also include illegal development which goes against policies,” they explained.

Policies that 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, they warned.

“This allows developers to put their previously illegal properties on the market since banks would then be in a position to finance agreements when they otherwise would not do so.

“The new ODZ scheme even allows for properties that were served with enforcement notices predating 2016 as long as the developer has a pre-2016 permit in hand. Different to other planning applications, regularisation requests are not published, people cannot send their objections during a representation period, and the decisions of the Planning Commission on these applications cannot be appealed.”

Rather than closing down the 2016 regularisation scheme as was originally promised, the government has instead decided to further widen its already contested scope, the organisations said.

While the lenient readings of its own policies and its failure to enforce rules had already weakened ODZ boundaries over the years, they added, the PA is now going to fuel more ODZ development if the amendment becomes law.

‘PA’s function isn’t to enable business in the property market’

“The PA states that the widening of the scope of the scheme is intended to accommodate ‘certain property owners’ who ‘are not able to place on the market, or acquire a bank loan for their property, due to an irregularity which is non-sanctionable, and took place before 2016’.

“While it’s ridiculous that we even have to say this out loud, we must point out that the PA’s function isn’t to enable business in the property market but to commit to its planning policies and ensure developers fall in line with policies meant to safeguard the environment.”

They added it was even more shameful 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.

Should this amendment be approved, the scheme will do the exact opposite and allow developers who have repeatedly ignored ODZ boundaries to get legal approval for the daylight robbery of non-developed spaces, they warned.

The organisations against the proposal 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 and Wirt Għawdex.

Planning Authority explains

In a reaction late on Thursday afternoon, the Planning Authority said that the proposed amendments applied only to 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.

Developments that are partially outside the development zone boundary can only be regularised if these were originally covered by 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,” the PA said.

Additionally, it added, sites that are completely outside the development zone boundary shall not be eligible for regularisation.

The authority insisted that the proposed amendments do not accommodate ‘big developers’ but were clearly targeted to address relatively minor, non-conformant issues that households were facing when they needed to sell, or use their property as a guarantee for finance.

The authority denied 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 regularised,” the PA said.

As per Times of Malta, 17 November 2022