While a number of developers have been making declarations about the “need to review local plans”, the government has found a way to quietly appease the lobby with a proposal to regularise ODZ illegalities.

The new regularisation scheme, according to the Planning Authority, is meant to include pre-August 2016 developments located beyond development boundaries or others located within rural settlements (Category 1).

The scheme was accompanied by a ridiculous 14-day public consultation period, hardly enough time for civil society and individuals to seek advice from architects and lawyers on the proposed changes. This, however, did not deter the Malta Developers Association, which claimed that its “members have no interest in the scheme” but which submitted amendments and supported it.

The MDA spoke of “thousands of families” who would benefit from these new planning measures, echoed by the PA’s clarification which spoke of “relatively minor non-conformant issues that households are facing”. The PA quoted over 19,500 applications for ODZ regularisation.

This is a classic tactic used by the PA when it comes to ODZ figures. Its public server contains huge amounts of data from which the public cannot readily extract such statistics. The PA’s numbers here serve to muddy the waters, bundling major illegalities with the “minor infringements”, thus shielding the people behind such applications.

The 19,500 applications are a total figure but we cannot really know how many are for the regularisation of extra heights in ODZ or for illegalities committed purposely by applicants and their architects, knowing that, one day, everything will be forgiven.

Both PA and MDA are fully aware that large swathes of ODZ land are owned not by innocent “families and households” but by speculators.

Curiously, the PA stated that “the introduction of these regulations did not accommodate big developers” in its rebuttal of a press release sent by numerous civil society organisations, as if an authority needed to protect a private lobby from justified cynicism.

Similarly, the PA said that the regularisation is “clearly targeted” to address issues faced by said households when “coming to sell or use their property as a guarantee for finance”. From the horse’s mouth: the aim behind this “reform” is to encourage the sale of ODZ property.

Not only is the PA incorrect in its assertion that big developers won’t benefit from these measures – especially on account of the well-known ODZ infringements carried out by development magnates – but it’s not the PA’s remit to inject life into the ODZ property market.

Why the planning regulator should have an interest in ODZ real estate sales is hard to fathom. It is equally hard not to believe that the PA is being pressured by big business. The PA’s remit is to regulate abuses and breaches of the planning laws, not favour the commercial interests of estate agents, who form part of the “uninterested” MDA.

Neither can the PA boast any track record of sorts when it comes to enforcement; while illegalities are allowed to fester, the authority enforces rarely and selectively, allowing big developers to get away with fines they clearly afford.

Despite Labour’s electoral promise to safeguard ODZ areas, the government is doing the exact opposite. The raft of regularised illegalities sets a legal precedent since the authority is allowing contraveners to tweak the rules, also for the benefit of future contraveners. What’s the point of having policies and laws and an authority which hardly ever enforces and then forgives and forgets?

Through a mass planning amnesty, it is now abdicating its responsibilities as regulator and taking up the mantle of enabler for estate agents and developers.

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