You are currently viewing What stakeholders make of planned ODZ policy changes – Alan Deidun

What stakeholders make of planned ODZ policy changes – Alan Deidun

The release of proposed revisions to the maligned 2014 ODZ policies (known formally as Rural Policy and Design Guidelines) has understandably drawn a mixed bag of reactions. The revisions have, to a certain extent, managed to plug some of the many loopholes that riddled the previous permissive policies, but they are still generic and generous enough to allow abuse by opportunistic applicants.

It is heartening to note that the corresponding public consultation stage attracted an enthusiastic response from the public and from stakeholders, contrary to the normally lukewarm and even sluggish public participation in such exercises.

I tease out three submissions in particular that caught my eye due to their relevance.

Malcolm Borg, coordinator of the NGO Għaqda Bdiewa Attivi (GħBA) and long-time advocate of farmers’ rights, fields an interesting proposal – that of using a farmer’s turnover to distinguish between active farmers and phantom ones, rather than using the size of a farmer’s holding. This would further separate the wheat from the chaff, given that purchasing the required minimum holding of 10 tumoli should not be an issue for those with deep pockets simple bent on gaining access to an ODZ permit.

Besides the size of one’s agricultural holding, the revised policy also puts the onus on identifying whether the land owner/applicant is a farmer, not once again on the Agricultural Advisory Committee. It is doubtful whether this is enough to discern real farmers from impostors, given that, as rightly said by Brian Restall, anyone can register unoccupied land under his or her own name at Ta’ Qali without much verification of ownership.

Secondly, Anthony Bonanno, representing the Environment and Resources Authority (ERA), rightly points out that the revised policy does not specify whether a number of highly questionable provisions in the 2014 policies have actually been stymied or not. For instance, the 2014 version included a blanket concession of 10 per cent on permitted footprints. Can applicants still latch on to this clause – i.e. has this been revoked through the new policies or is it still in force?

Thirdly, as rightly explained by Claire Bonello and Marie-Therese Camenzuli, representing Futur Ambjent Wieħed and the Church’s Environment Com­mission, the revised policies do not seem to consider statistics on the implementation of previous policies.

On the positive side, the revamped ODZ policies have eliminated the prospect of an approved new single dwelling unit for poultry farmers and have 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.

More significantly, according to the revised policies, the applicant will be required to enter into a planning obligation through a public deed, to be duly registered both at the Public Registry and at the Land Re­gistration Agency, tying the ownership and occupation of the dwelling to that of the farm, so that the residential building is not sold or transferred to third parties, unless in conjunction with the farm, and, in that case, the farm continues with the same level of original opera­tion and output.Despite the silver linings, the revised policies still include loopholes that can be abused– Alan Deidun

The revised measures also require that applicants of agricultural-oriented permits have the status of registered farmers for at least five years, that their holding consists of contiguous (i.e. continuous, sharing a common boundary) parcels of land, that the conversion of garrigue and other environmentally-sensitive land into farmland is not permissible, and that ruins and makeshift structures are excluded from comprising an ‘existing building’.

The latter especially has been a bone of contention in recent years between unscrupulous applicant and their architects and environmentalists, with the former sealing approval of permits for the redevelopment of ruins that had been uninhabited for 100 years or more.

Despite the silver linings, the revised policies still include loopholes that can be abused.

For instance, while no extensions to existing farm and scheduled buildings will be permitted, such extensions are possible for other types of dwellings in rural areas. In addition, with respect to the latter type of development, 1978 is to be adopted as a cut-off date when defining an ‘existing building’, rather than 1967, as is the case for other provisions.

The policies are not forceful enough when it comes to safeguarding traditional country pathways, especially when Transport Malta and Infrastructure Malta can plough ahead with asphalting such pathways through a simple DNO procedure. Ominously, the revised policies also: remove the need for a minimum agricultural holding for agritourism project applicants (at least, this was set to a deterring 60 tumoli in the previous policies); still entertain the construction of agricultural stores (although maximum footprint has been decreased); and do not specify a minimum holding of horses so to justify the construction of stables.

The bottom line is that while the revamped ODZ policies do seem to make an attempt (and, in some instances, they manage) to rectify their permissive precursors, in many instances they give the im­pression of being half-baked as they do not go far enough.

On a more sinister note, the pivotal role played by the ERA in screening and countering ODZ development is not acknowledged in the draft policy revision. If we are serious about giving the ERA more clout in countering the towering juggernaut that is the planning realms, this definitely has to change.

Stating the obvious – i.e. that the ERA is a statutory consultee for all development applications, simply won’t wash. Giving the ERA the right of veto on the planning commissions as well as on the planning appeals board (EPRT), which decide on the lion’s share of ODZ applications, at least where a significant environmental impact is on the cards, will.

As rightly stated by the ERA at public consultation stage, the revised policy should not only be consistent with the SPED and the National Rural Development Programme, but should be also in line with national environmental legislation and policies. ODZ has an environmental dimension, not just a planning and development one.