A weird PN proposal

The idea of ODZ permits needing parliamentary approval is beyond the comprehension by any sane person

PN leader Bernard Grech
PN leader Bernard Grech

Last Wednesday, when speaking at a Nationalist Party ‘question and answer event’ in Paola, the PN leader Bernard Grech pledged that a government under his leadership would make sure that no ODZ land was ever developed again unless the project was approved by two-thirds of MPs.

It is obvious that whoever suggested this to Bernard Grech is an incompetent idiot. First of all, development does not mean simply the erection of new buildings. It encompasses all activities that affect the physical circumstances of any area.

Therefore, reinstating derelict dry walls (ħitan tas-sejjiegħ) in fields is a development within ODZ for which one needs a PA development permit. Incidentally the EU subsidises such developments. The idea of such permits needing parliamentary approval is beyond the comprehension by any sane person.

There are many genuine uses in ODZ areas that need a development permit – quarrying, filling up of disused quarries, greenhouses, ancillary buildings for farming and livestock rearing are the most common accepted examples of activities in ODZ areas. These activities cannot be carried out without development permits. Even a change from wasteland to agricultural land that would involve an increase in the amount of soil needs a development permit.

The notion of Parliament deciding on the technical issues involved in such permits is completely berserk, more so when MPs are not technical people and they should never take decisions that should be taken on technical grounds. 

To have an idea of what development permits in ODZ areas entail, one could look at the reply given by Minister Ian Borg when answering a Parliamentary question tabled by Nationalist MP, Toni Bezzina, in December 2017 (PQ 2983). The answer gives all details about applications for development in ODZ areas in 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017. Before advising Bernard Grech to start acting silly, whoever is his advisor should have looked at this reply and asked Bezzina to follow up with another question asking for the same information for subsequent years. In 2016 and 2017 the number of such applications was circa 180 per annum.

The replacement of derelict buildings by villas is the most controversial aspect of the rules regulating development within ODZ. The policies allow anyone to build a residential building (read: a posh villa with pool) to replace any derelict building that used to be a residence, irrespective of the current state of this ‘residence’. So anyone who proves that, three quarters of a century ago, a pile of stones was the residence of someone’s great grandparents’, has a right to replace the pile of stones with a modern residence.

This particular proviso of the policies governing developments in ODZ areas has justly raised the hackles of many environmental NGOs and law-abiding citizens. Incidentally, the much maligned Malta Developers Association (MDA) never lobbied for any such polices in ODZ areas.

The issue came to a head in 2019, when a well-known Gozitan entrepreneur obtained a permit to build a villa instead of a dilapidated, partly-demolished room outside Qala. The chairman of the Planning Commission that approved the application, Elizabeth Ellul, was pilloried because this developer had used – in other sites – the professional services of Ellul’s husband, who is a private architect. In my opinion, however, the Commission she chaired correctly applied the policy about reinstating old residences.

Eventually, the applicant voluntarily withdrew the approved application and Elizabeth Ellul was relieved of her duties as chairman of the Planning Commission.

But this was not enough. The Planning Authority pledged to change the policy in question. In July 2020 the Planning Authority launched a consultation document with its proposed amendments to the Rural and Design Guidance 2014 that gave rise to the villa instead of a heap of stones system. Basically some policies were tweaked but the most important change was that, henceforth, only sites currently being used as residences would be recognised as residences.

Anyone who is interested about all this – as Bernard Grech’s advisors should be – should check this Planning Authority consultation document (Rural Policy and Design Guidance 2020) that is in the public domain. The consultation period elapsed at the end of August 2020 – one year ago. Incidentally this is a good read for anyone who has no idea what development in ODZ areas should be allowed.

Over 12 months have passed since the consultation period elapsed. The old policies are still in force and the proposed document has apparently been shelved.

This is the real current ODZ scandal and the Opposition should have attacked the current administration’s lackadaisical attitude about its promised change in its rural policies. Why is the Planning Authority dragging its feet to change the rural policies when these polices led to so many controversial decisions with which the great majority of citizens do not agree? Why can a heap of stones still get people a permit to build a villa in ODZ areas?

Bernard Grech’s advisors – oblivious of what is going on around them – go on and suggest that the PN should make sure that no ODZ land can be developed unless the project was approved in Parliament by two-thirds of MPs!

Before making such vague and weird promises, the PN should have embarked on a consultation exercise with Bernard Grech holding public meetings and hearing what those interested in the issue have to say. This should apply to other sectors, of course.

On the social media, the PN’s Christian Peregin tried to sell the idea that what Bernard Grech said was simply a push to open a discussion about the subject. But this idea was presented as a done deal and as an electoral promise, not as the starting point of a debate.

The PN should listen to the players first and then decide on a policy after such an exercise is carried out; certainly not before any consultation exercise.

I have no doubt that Bernard Grech is well-intentioned. But he was completely misled on this issue.

As Lawrence Gonzi, Simon Busuttil and Adrian Delia have all found out, the way to hell is paved with good intentions. Having good intentions is not enough.

Solid hard work and spending time consulting serious people who are in the know is the way forward. And this is where Bernard Grech is lacking.