Why are outside development zone (ODZ) permits granted if the same term implies that no development is allowed within these zones?
Strictly speaking, an area which is ODZ can only be developed if the development boundary is moved to include that area within the limits of development that requires the consent of Parliament. This process does not apply only in those special cases where the development is strictly required for agricultural purposes.
A number are genuine cases as laws allow the granting of permits to build structures for agricultural uses. However, this is one of the most abused loopholes and many of these structures can be built inside the development zones in special areas indicated in the local plans. Stables, for example, may be easily used and converted into homes for people. Chicken and rabbit farms are nowadays factories and little rural remains of them.
Only buildings worth keeping for historical, archaeological or architectural reasons should be allowed to have extensions and these, if possible, within their own footprints.
Boathouses are most times converted into summer residences and, unless they have been in existence for many decades and are genuinely used as boathouses, they should never be recognised as such.
Over the years, applicants have learnt how to abusively exploit ODZ permits (which are misguidedly granted by Mepa) as an excuse to build their own dwellings. This is not to mention boathouse owners who have been bullying governments for years.
Such bad examples have led to many people losing faith in the system. Genuine farmers give up hope because of bureaucratic lengthy procedures to process applications. Unfortunately, even people who apply for minor insignificant amendments in their houses in urban places have to wait for months to be given a go-ahead by Mepa. This leads to loss of confidence in governments and the planning authority and even encourages some to employ corrupt practices to beat the system.
So just how can the system be improved?
Letting people build ‘boathouses’ along our coasts to acquire more votes is no argument and, in any case, is in direct conflict with the principle of what constitutes the common good
As long as people in power remain not accountable or responsible for their actions, such ODZ development will continue. ODZ permits should be of a temporary nature and should remain valid only till the reason for it was granted remains applicable. For example, if a farmer is given a permit to build a room in his farmed land, such authorisation should only remain valid as long as the land is being farmed.
Also, additions to the buildings should be strictly and directly related to that agricultural purpose for which the permit was granted. If the land is no longer used for agricultural purposes, then the structure should be removed. This implies that these structures should be designed and constructed in such a way as to be easily dismantled and the area restored to its original state at the expense of the owner.
If the government decides it is in the public interest to grant an ‘urbanising’ permit ODZ, then, instead of delegating this chore to Mepa, as it does with all normal permits, it should issue the permit directly itself. This will free the planning authority from having to violate the very policies it is supposed to be safeguarding in the government’s name. The public will also know more clearly who is accountable for such decisions.
Two last points regarding recent proposals put forward by the government.
The government is proposing land reclamation. Unfortunately, this is already being practised on a small scale, ruining what is left of our very few beaches and coast. Look at Marsalforn, Buġibba and Xlendi. Concrete is still being laid on the natural coast and this is changing the whole scenario from a natural beauty to an artificial block of cement.
The government is also proposing a scheme for agritourism, which could lead to more abuse with more building in ODZ. There are already a number of abandoned places in the countryside which can be easily rehabilitated and used for this purpose. So why use more virgin land that is becoming a precious rarity in our small islands?
The first and foremost duty of any government is to safeguard the common good. Issuing permits or letting people build ‘boathouses’ along our coasts to acquire more votes is no argument and, in any case, is in direct conflict with the principle of what constitutes the common good.
We environmentalists also have a vote.
Stanley Farrugia Randon is a member of Din l-Art Ħelwa.