A stinking amnesty

It smells

 

The planning amnesty which Parliamentary Secretary Deborah Schembri launched last week to regularise development illegalities that cannot be addressed through a proper application of planning policies is a throwback to the Stone Age of land use planning in Malta.

While land use planning in Malta has been and  always will be the most controversial of activities of public bodies, it has to be stated that, since 1992, the Planning Authority (warts and all) has developed into the most transparent government authority. It could be much more transparent but no one in his right senses doubts that, to date, it still surpasses all the other government departments and authorities in issues of transparency.

Applications for the issuance of a development permit are publicised through a site notice and on the Planning Authority website, as well as in the Malta Government Gazette. On the Planning Authority website one can also examine the exact proposal, as all the drawings submitted can be viewed online. On the basis of this available  information, it is possible to submit to the Planning Authority observations about – and objections to – the development proposal , which observations and objections have to be addressed when the final report on the particular application is drawn up recommending approval or refusal of the development proposal.

To date there is one exception, commonly referred to as the DNO  (Development Notification Order) application which is a fast-track application process. Generally, this type of application is non-controversial and involves minor or straightforward applications. However, recently the Planning Authority considered that it was advisable to reduce the number of cases to which the DNO process applies, thereby widening the number of proposals for development which are subject to public consultation.

Legal Notice 285 of 2016, published under the authority of Parliamentary Secretary Deborah Schembri, stands in stark contrast to all this and stinks. Entitled Regularisation of Existing Development Regulations 2016, these regulations establish the procedures to be followed in order to regularise existing development illegalities. We have to thank Dr Schembri for small mercies, as she excluded illegal ODZ developments from the regularisation process. However, she did not consider it appropriate to similarly exclude illegal developments in UCAs (Urban Conservation Areas) or illegalities concerning scheduled or protected properties.

Nor is there a distinction between minor illegalities and major illegalities. Had the proposed regularisation process sought to sanction minor illegalities, matters would have been substantially different and most probably the proposal would have been acceptable. This would be so even though most of the minor illegalities would most probably not require an amnesty. Most can easily be dealt with within the parameters of existing policies and regulations. These cases of minor illegalities are, in fact, the perfect camouflage for the major illegalities.

To ensure that this camouflage works as planned, Legal Notice 285 of 2016 makes short shrift of the transparency process by ensuring that it is not applicable to applications for the regularisation of illegal developments. The legal notice, in its regulation 5, emphasises only one exception, which is those cases where an illegal development was subject to an enforcement order. In such cases where an enforcement order would have been issued “following the submission of a formal complaint by third parties” the said third parties will be informed that an application has been submitted for the regularisation of the illegalities and they will be given the opportunity to be considered “interested parties”.

In all other cases, contrary to the provisions of the Development Planning Act of 2016, no one has the right to be considered an interested party. This can be stated with certainty as being a specific objective in view of the fact the regulation 3 of Legal Notice clearly spells out its objectives, which are: “to lay down procedures by which any person may request the regularisation of an existing irregular development.”

The legal notice makes no provision either for access to information about the proposals submitted or on the timeframe for submissions of observations and/or objections by interested third parties other than by the solitary exception referred to previously.

This is the state of affairs which led four environmental NGOs – Flimkien għal Ambjent Aħjar, Din l-Art Ħelwa, Friends of the Earth (Malta) and Ramblers Association – to submit in Court a judicial protest in which they insisted that the government cannot ignore the transparency provisions of the Development Planning Act 2016 when considering whether to regularise illegal development. These applications have to be publicised and the public has a right to scrutinise them as well as submit comments and objections when they consider these to be appropriate.

There is only one simple question to ask: why this stink?

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday – 4 September 2016

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Its time to halt the process

 

The objective of a census is to collect data to accurately inform decision-makers. The 2005 census identified 53,136 vacant properties in the Maltese islands; 24,295 units (45.7 per cent) of these were flats and penthouses, 13,872 were terraced houses and 9,857 were maisonettes. Most were identified as being in either a good state of repair or else as requiring only minimum repairs in order to be habitable.

It also resulted that 5,724 units (10.8 per cent) of the vacant dwellings were in a shell state. Twenty per cent of the vacant dwellings were identified as summer residences, a substantial number in Gozo.

Comparing the 2005 census with that taken in 1995, one notes that the number of vacant dwellings in the 10-year period increased from 35,723 to 53,136, up 48.74 per cent. Faced with such an increase in vacant dwellings a responsible government would have applied the brakes to the construction of residential units. In particular, it would have either reduced the land available for development or, as a minimum, it would have retained the status quo.

Faced with this information the Nationalist government, a few months after the 2005 census, ignored the results and instead increased the land available for development. It did this through three specific measures.

Firstly, through the rationalisation exercise it extended the limits of development in most localities. Secondly, it increased the permissible heights for development in a number of localities. Thirdly, it changed the rules for the development of penthouses. Instead of being constructed over a four-storey high building they could now be constructed over a three-storey building.

This has resulted in a further increase in the number of vacant dwellings, which have now been estimated as being in excess of 70,000. The results of the latest census are awaited with trepidation.

The 2005 census had identified that there were a total of 192,314 residential units on the Maltese islands. This means that the 53,136 vacant dwellings then identified amounted to 27.63 per cent of the housing stock.

The number of vacant residential properties in Malta and Gozo in 2005 was equivalent to seven times the size of Birkirkara, which, then, had 7,613 residential units. The number of vacant residential properties in 2011 is estimated to be even larger: nine times the size of 2005 Birkirkara.

This means that today approximately one third of the existing dwellings in Malta are vacant. Additionally, it signifies that expenditure for the development and maintenance of part of the islands’ infrastructure (currently servicing vacant properties) could have been avoided and instead channelled to maintain the infrastructure that services utilised properties. This applies to roads, public sewers and the networks distributing/servicing electricity, water, street lighting and telecommunications.

Millions of euros have been thrown down the drain to keep the construction industry happy.

In view of the above, when the construction industry boasts of its contribution to the gross national product one is justified in being sceptical. When a contribution to the economic development of the country is manifested in such negative results (thousands of vacant dwellings) one starts to question whether the GNP is in reality an adequate means of measurement.

The present crisis facing the construction industry is a unique opportunity for the government to embark on its inevitable and long overdue restructuring. The large number of vacant dwellings is the proverbial writing on the wall that does not require any special deciphering skills. The construction industry should be cut down to size in order to avoid further environmental damage and to channel part of its labour force towards activity of tangible benefit to the economy.

Restructuring will lead to a migration of jobs, especially those that do not require any particular skill. Offering retraining now to the unskilled segment would be an appropriate policy initiative. This would ease the social impacts of restructuring and facilitate the migration from one sector o another.

Now is the time to halt the development of uncommitted land. In particular, the rationalisation exercise of 2006, the relaxation of permissible building heights and penthouse regulations require immediate reversal.

A positive signal was forthcoming from the 2012 Budget through the introduction of incentives for the rehabilitation of village cores and protected buildings.

These incentives were first mentioned when the Rent Reform White Paper was launched in the summer of 2008. Unfortunately, the gestation period of this initiative was of elephantine proportions.

The availability of incentives to encourage the rehabilitation of the historic heritage in towns and villages is not enough. It must be coupled with an increased commitment to train on a continuous basis the required tradesmen and women who need to be at the forefront of this effort. The industrialisation of the construction industry over the years has been the cause of the loss of much skilled labour. It is time to halt the process.

This is the way forward. The economy has been toxically dependent on the construction industry for far too long. I look forward to the time when all this would be history.

A Happy New Year to all.

 

originally published in The Times of Malta – December 31, 2011