The government’s much-maligned ODZ policy has finally been rewritten but has all the potential abuse been eliminated? Ivan Martin asks stakeholders how the new law shapes up.

Known as the Rural Policy Design Guidance, the Planning Authority document, first published in 2014, was rewritten over the past year with Environment Minister Aaron Farrugia announcing the proposed changes in July.

The policy guidance has proven controversial since it was introduced, with critics saying it has made it much easier to build in Outside Development Zones.

Stakeholders have long been flagging concerns over clauses in the original policy that lead to controversial applications and decisions, such as a huge Qala development which had sought to change a disused rural room into a fully-fledged ODZ villa.

On unveiling the reworked policy, Farrrugia promised that the new document would reduce “to a minimum” permits for development in ODZ with the introduction of narrow-ended definitions that cannot be open to interpretation. But has the wait been worth it?

Requirement for agri-tourism projects waived

'Commercialise the countryside' - Claire Bonello

Lawyer and environmental activist Claire Bonello laid into the reform saying it would “commercialise the countryside”.  

“Unfortunately, the amendments to the Rural Policy and Design Guidelines have resulted in a document which is more akin to the ‘Commercialise the Countryside Guidelines’,” she said.

The proposals, Bonello says, opened the floodgates to the commercialisation of Malta’s rural areas and the proliferation of large built structures with no real protection being granted to green areas or biodiversity.

“To begin with, the requirement for agri-tourism projects to take place on 60 tumoli of land has been waived entirely.

“Now there is no minimum landholding required for an agri-tourism project,” she said.

There was also no set height limitation for rural buildings. Nor is there an outright prohibition on tarmacking or asphalting country paths “so we may be seeing more disasters such as the Wied Qirda [tarmacking] fiasco”.

Swimming pools in rural areas are still allowed. And the government still gets an exemption to depart from policy, rather than observing the law and setting a good example.

Finally, the wording of the document is deliberately vague and subject to interpretation with the ERA having been written out of the whole process.

“Indeed, this draft policy is worse than the current policy,” Bonello concluded.

‘Quarters for abuse in revised policies’ – Deidun

Alan Deidun, a biologist who sits on the Environment and Resources Authority board, believes loopholes remain.

While the revision has, to a certain extent, managed to plug some of the many loopholes driving the previous permissive policies, they are still generic and generous enough to allow abuse by opportunistic applicants, he said. 

The revised policies, Deidun said, do not seem to take stock of statistics on the implementation of previous policies.

On the positive side, the revamped ODZ policies have closed one loophole for poultry farmers who will no longer be able to apply for an on-site dwelling.

The reform has restricted this faculty to pig, cow, sheep and goat animal husbandry only, given that the call for a poultry farmer to be on site on a continuous basis is considered to be a tenuous one given the needs of the farm animal in question.

The revised policies, he said, still include quarters for abuse.

For instance, while extensions to existing farm and scheduled buildings will not be permitted, extensions are possible to other types of dwellings in rural areas.

Zoning exercise required – MDA

According to the Malta Developers’ Association (MDA), a proper and comprehensive zoning exercise is still required.

MDA director-general Marthese Portelli said the authorities still need to identify areas where structures related to farming and agricultural purposes would be permissible.

“Based on the logic that there are zones specifically identified for industrial parks, warehousing, residential priority areas, and so on, one should also have zones for farming and agricultural purposes,” Portelli said.

“Such zoning would create clarity and stability across the board, including for the sector itself,” the MDA official added.

Portelli said the policy should prohibit “unnecessary take-up of rural land”. With respect to farming and husbandry activities, the association recommends first utilising the ‘idle’ stock available and then moving on to the areas which would have been identified upfront.

Farmers’ lobby all out against abusers

Farmers on the other hand, commended the Planning Authority (PA) for trying to close loopholes that were used to build “unnecessary” rural structures in the past.

Malcolm Borg, of Għaqda Bdiewa Attivi, a farmers’ lobby, said, however, that abusers of the policy needed to be identified and weeded out. 

“What is truly needed is a real assessment as to whether the applicant is a genuine farmer or not. This can be done by considering turnover from agricultural activities. It is also essential that built agricultural stores are monitored and those not used for agricultural activities are removed,” he said.

Once a farmer is vetted, he added, the true requirements of their agricultural activity needs to be considered and should it be established that the size of the agricultural store needed to operate professionally as a producer exceeds the maximum 60 square metres that is being proposed by this document, then a permit should be granted.

However, only if these conditions are met, Borg said.

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