A revision of the planning policy for areas outside the development zone has long been called for. A proposed new draft was announced in July by Minister Aaron Farrugia, and public consultation ran until the end of August.

Times of Malta recently asked some stakeholders for their views on this so-called revised ‘Rural Policy Design Guidance’. There is concern that the policy will lead to further commercialisation of the countryside.

While some loopholes have been tightened, others remain. The new policy may still be open to abuse by architects and their clients, as well as by government ministers and their projects.

Minister Farrugia has mentioned ‘sustainable development’ in the countryside, using a phrase which has unfortunately been so misused that it has been rendered bland and meaningless. The tangible and visible over-development everywhere in Malta and Gozo is not sustainable at all.

The policy is intended to guide the Planning Authority on how to weigh up and take decisions on applications for building in the countryside. It assumes that Malta has a ‘rural economy’, distinct from the rest of the economy, and that this should be promoted.

Development in the countryside has been badly handled over many years. Our rural assets are dwindling, and it is hardly possible to go for a short walk or drive anywhere without stumbling across some building atrocity.

When the previous rural policy was launched in 2014, it was an opportunity for improvement and for a new vision to be put forward. Instead, the policy was an abject failure.

Some of its ill-conceived clauses have been tightened up. Heaps of stones or total ruins will no longer provide justification for the building of new houses in areas outside the development zone. This change should prevent repeats of the recent controversial application in Qala which attempted to change a dilapidated rural room into a fully-fledged villa.

Sadly it often takes a public outcry to bring about change at the Planning Authority.

In the end, good governance is the principal determining factor for the success of a policy. Policies are bent towards the interpretations given by decision-makers.

Therefore, the central question is, where does the government really want to go with this. Is it providing the tools with which the countryside can be exploited for commercial gain, or is it truly attempting to safeguard the landscape? Has the right balance been struck?

The landscape is not the same in all rural areas, and it has a value to the nation that goes beyond its direct economic output and potential. The policy must cater for this.

There is no guarantee that any of the valuable suggestions made by stakeholders during the public consultation will be taken on board. Scepticism is hardly surprising with examples like the high-rise policy still in recent memo­ry. The junior minister of the day, Michael Farrugia, had added a large area at Mrie─žel to that policy after the public consultation was closed.

There are still many concerns to be tackled, as well as good ideas that have not yet been incorporated. An underlying fear is that our planners may be dealing themselves yet another hand of cards with which they can wreak havoc upon the landscape. We have seen this happen too many times before.

It is important that an open discussion continues. The policy should not be finalised until all its potential weaknesses have been ironed out. Malta’s open spaces are too precious for any more bad planning mistakes to be made.

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