Over the years government has been actively at the forefront in the assault on agricultural land. It continuously makes it easier for agricultural land to be developed. It also takes up good quality agricultural land in order to develop new (and many times unnecessary) roads or else to extend existing ones.
The White Paper published earlier this week by the Ministry for Agriculture, entitled Agricultural Land Reform seeks to control the private sector assault on agricultural land. By omission, the assault being carried out by the public sector is being deemed acceptable!
Existing authorities like the Planning Authority already have the legal powers to stop agricultural land being transformed into picnic or barbeque areas. Yet it has done nothing to stop this over the years.
The Department of Agriculture always ends up defending the uptake of good agricultural land by Government for unnecessary roads. The Central Link is one of the latest examples as a result of which naturally irrigated agricultural land at Attard was destroyed in order to make way for more cars. The livelihood of a number of full-time farmers was destroyed. Not even a whimper from the authorities at the Department of Agriculture was heard.
Faced with existing authorities which are not functioning properly what sense does it make to create more authorities, as proposed by the agricultural reform White Paper? Would it not be better to remove the snakes from the Planning Authority and the Department of Agriculture and replace them with suitably qualified and motivated personnel? If the Planning Authority and the Department of Agriculture are allowed to function properly, with suitable leadership and expertise, most of the contents of the White Paper would not even be required!
Towards the end of 2021 Mr Justice Lawrence Mintoff, in his decision on a constitutional application relative to agricultural land at Qrendi had emphasised that the realistic value of agricultural land ought to be a reflection of what that agricultural land can produce. This is a point validly taken up by the White Paper when discussing the value currently being attached to agricultural holdings. The White Paper also proposes that the rental value of agricultural holdings should be determined at 1.5 per cent of their realistic value. It remains to be seen whether and to what extent these limitations on the determination of value and rental value will be able to withstand the legal assault which will inevitably follow once the White paper proposal in this respect is implemented.
An interesting point made by the White Paper is to introduce a tax on agricultural land which is not being used for agricultural purposes! This is similar to the proposals which my party repeatedly brought forward relative to taxes on vacant dwellings!
This is the first time, as far as I can recollect, that the Labour Party is proposing the utilisation of taxation as a tool to attain a political objective: the protection of agricultural land. I do not however think that this proposal will materialise as the Labour Party has been vociferous over the years against the use of taxation as a political instrument in any form or shape. However, it is positive that the proposal is being tabled.
The proposals in the White Paper on agricultural reform are definitely a first step towards a mature debate. They are however very far from what is required to protect agricultural land.
The first step should be to establish an element of good faith, which is currently inexistent. In this line of thought I would invite government to present a motion in Parliament to cancel the rationalisation exercise approved by Parliament in 2006 as a result of which thousands of square metres of agricultural land all over the islands were defined as being suitable for development. I believe that the current Minister for Agricultural, Anton Refalo, has the credibility to do it. He is in fact one of the few remaining Members of Parliament who way back in 2006 had voted against adopting the rationalisation exercise, together with the rest of the then Labour Party Parliamentary Group!
As a second step the Minister for Land Use Planning could accelerate the revision of the Rural Design Guidelines, thereby closing the loopholes which continuously encourage the urbanisation of the countryside.
Only then, maybe, can government be credible in its proposals to protect agricultural land. All agricultural land needs our protection. This is required all of the time, not only when it is politically convenient.
published in The Malta Independent on Sunday: 9 October 2022