The planning amnesty announced earlier this week has been in the pipeline for 18 months. In the initial stages of the debate – on 8 February 2015 in an article published in this paper – I had described it as The spoils of environmental crime.
The need to promulgate an amnesty is a political declaration that there has been a failure of good governance. Unfortunately, this is a common occurrence on these islands, where politicians are repeatedly held hostage by various special interest groups. It is has happened with fiscal issues and it is happening with development irregularities.
In 2012, had through Legal Notice 229 of that year, the Gonzi-led government introduced a concession related to infringement of sanitary rules in development. On the Planning Authority website, the present amnesty has been labelled as “the new regularisation process”. It is described as a “one-time opportunity to regularise existing unsanctionable non-conformant development located entirely within the development boundaries”. The only practical limitation to the said regularisation is if the said regularisation has an impact on third parties, described as “injury to amenity”. In such instances, the regularisation cannot be proceeded with. However, beyond a general definition of “amenity” Legal Notice 265 of 2016 entitled Regularisation of Existing Development Regulations 2016 does not go into any detail on the criteria as to what constitutes “injury to amenity”. This is very worrying as it signifies that third party rights are once more on very shaky grounds, with the Authority deciding each case on its merits.
The proposed regularisation is applicable within the development boundaries. This signifies that no application to regularise development illegalities carried out ODZ can be submitted. However, there are no limitations on the regularisation of illegalities carried out within urban conservation areas and more so on scheduled properties. The Planning Authority is authorised to regularise these irregularities if an application is submitted. It will all depend on the common sense of the individual decision-takers and the inevitable pressures that will be applied to approve most, if not all, of the applications submitted. On the basis of the Planning Authority’s past performance this is very worrying.
This amnesty, like the one before it, sends out one very clear message: it pays not to observe the law and policies. Those who, over the years, have ignored enforcement notices are now being rewarded.
This is ethically reprehensible as, simultaneously, those who have observed planning law and policies are indirectly being punished. Does anyone seriously believe that after this amnesty there will be an increased observance of planning laws?
In a statement earlier this week, the Chamber of Architects and Civil Engineers rightly pointed out that “ ………. these regulations will open the door to severe blots in our built landscape, and will serve to promote the laissez faire attitude of certain developers by condoning the provision of a mechanism for illegalities to become legal.”
The regulations promoting this planning amnesty are vague and open to a wide interpretation. This signifies a clear intent at drafting stage to ensure that the enforcement backlog is wiped out. It is, however, still unclear whether and to what extent third party rights will be protected unless they had reported the illegality to the authority in the first place.
The whole exercise carried out by the authority is clearly drafted with the specific intent of protecting those who have ignored rules and regulations. Instead of observing the law, it is now possible to pay your way around it. This is now official government policy.
At the end of the day, the Maltese government is sending out a clear message: in Malta it pays to ignore planning laws and policies. Wait for the next amnesty when you can cash in the spoils of environmental crime.
published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 28 August 2016