The number of planning permits approved outside development zones (ODZ) was higher last year than at any point in the last 11 years, official data shows.
According to Planning Authority figures seen by The Sunday Times of Malta, 745 developments in ODZ areas were approved in 2016 alone, compared to a 10-year average of 500 developments a year between 2006 and 2015.
Before last year, the only year in which the number of approved ODZ developments exceeded 700 was in 2007, a spike of 727 which has been linked to the general election held the following year.
Also of concern to environmentalists is the fact that only 13 applications – 1.8 per cent of the total – were approved by the full Planning Board last year, with the rest all heard by the three-person Planning Commission.
This was the lowest number of applications, and the lowest percentage of the total, heard by the board in the 11-year period. While the Planning Board hears a handful of applications in a single sitting, the Commission assesses around 50 in the same length of time, suggesting a far lower level of scrutiny for such applications.
Applicants and their architects have learned to exploit a number of loopholes, so I expect the upward trend to continue
“The board includes representatives of NGOs and ERA [Environment and Resources Authority],” Alan Deidun, an environmentalist and ERA board member, told this newspaper.
“There’s a lot of media scrutiny of the board but most applications are being approved in summary and perfunctory hearings by the commission. An average hearing there doesn’t last longer than six minutes.”
While the figures include everything from the construction of boundary walls and tool rooms to larger residential developments, the overall spike in ODZ applications over recent years can in part be linked to the approval in 2014 of the controversial Rural Policy in Design Guidelines.
The guidelines allow countryside ruins to be redeveloped into residences if the owner can prove that the structures had served as a dwelling at any point in the past.
“The real significance of these policies is sinking in,” Prof. Deidun said. “Applicants and their architects have learned to exploit a number of loopholes, so I expect the upward trend to continue this year.”
The controversial application submitted, and later withdrawn, by Nationalist MP Toni Bezzina for a residential development in the outskirts of Rabat relied on the same policy.
In a statement earlier this week, Front Ħarsien ODZ said: “These guidelines facilitate ODZ development which could have a terrible cumulative impact on Malta’s countryside.” It called on the government to request a more restrictive policy from the PA.
A year after the Rural Policy guidelines, the PA also approved a policy allowing petrol stations to be relocated from towns and villages to ODZ areas, with certain limitations, a policy which was immediately flagged up by eNGOs as contributing to ever greater urban sprawl.
The recent environment document drawn up by the PN, of which Mr Bezzina was a co-author, includes a number of commitments on ODZ land use, including a two-thirds parliamentary approval of major ODZ projects, limited to those which have been recommended by the PA.