Mepa permit renewals public consultation
Mid-February is the deadline for comments following a public consultation on permit renewals as part of ongoing reforms at the Malta Environment and Planning Authority. The draft guidance sets out to draw a line in shifting sands.
It will be five years to the day since Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi announced he would ditch the finance portfolio to take personal responsibility for the reform of Mepa. Writing on the need for reform at the time, then Din L-Art Ħelwa president Petra Bianchi posted on the NGO’s website:
“Regrettably, Mepa treats individual sites as existing in little or big bubbles of their own, and rarely as part of the surrounding landscape or wider community… Something is wrong, but where?
“Is it some members of the boards, certain members of staff, or other ill-advised pressures brought to bear on decisions, policies or procedures? Or perhaps something else? A sickness has crept steadily through the veins of the organisation. We wait anxiously for a diagnosis and a cure.”
Dr Bianchi was subsequently absorbed into the planning authority to take on the role of environment protection director.
The new legislation attempts to address incomplete developments which may have been abandoned because of lack of pressure to complete them. Planning permission must be determined on the basis of current planning policies.
It takes five years for a valid development planning permit to expire in Malta (three years in the UK). If the plot remains unbuilt or the building left unfinished the developer may apply for a renewal of the permit.
Mepa’s consultation draft document on the renewal and amendment of expired permits was issued with a nod to the public’s role in ensuring transparency and accountability with feedback invited.
A new category of application has been created to accommodate the developer who will then apply to ‘renew and amend’, since a renewal application on its own is not sufficient where changes to drawings are concerned. Revised drawings cannot be submitted in renewal applications that do not fit into the current planning regime.
The guidance on permit renewals and amendments seeks to ‘attain certainty’. Any feedback on the proposed procedures must be submitted to Mepa within the next two weeks.
When the timeframe for a permit runs out, a renewal application must be approved to extend the validity of the original permit with a new time limit. This may include different conditions but may also require less information than the first time around.
Renewing a permit involves a fresh permit application with a new number. The planning authority is making it clear that it can amend, add or delete conditions which were laid down in the original permission.
On the other hand, the guidance document calls for ‘absolutely no changes’ in local plans, policies, scheduling – or the way policy is interpreted when a permit comes up for renewal or amendment.
The application to renew must be advertised in the same way as the original and published in the press, with a site notice fixed on location, carrying a proper description of the proposal.
Harsher penalties, which can lead to incurring a fine of up to €12,000 for tampering with Mepa seals, do not appear to address failure to put up an application notice on the proposed site.
The authority acknowledges that “The site notice is a fragile instrument which is liable to removal by accident… or on purpose”.
The Mepa document holds that approval of a renewal application “is not a rubber-stamping exercise” and will not happen automatically. The authority may refuse renewal applications where changes in the circumstances prevailing at the time of the decision indicate that the proposal should no longer be treated favourably.
Renewing an application which has already undergone extensive public consultation may involve going through that process again if circumstances change after the issue of the original permit.
In a case where an approved but expired permit no longer complies with plans, constraints (such as scheduling) or policies, the renewal will then be viewed within the current planning regime and is likely to be refused.
If building has already begun then a commitment may generally be considered to exist and renewal or amendment may have to be approved to limit the development to the existing commitment.
However, if there is no development to remove or reverse then it is understood that there is no commitment on site. Simply clearing a site or demolishing an old building are not considered to be a firm enough commitment as to leave no option but to approve the renewal of the permit.
When deciding on renewed applications, commitment from other buildings which have since gone up in the surroundings may not be interpreted or used to increase the height limitation set out in a plan.
In a case where height limits were reduced to three floors after the original permit was issued for a block of five storeys plus penthouse, further renewal is likely to be refused if the construction has already gone up as far as the new limit.
If it has gone beyond and the storeys are roofed then the application cannot be refused, but if the floor is on seven courses or less and not yet roofed over, then the extra floors would have to be demolished.
Taking another example to define commitment, if an approved development to excavate and build basement garages plus a ground floor restaurant is up for renewal and the restaurant is no longer acceptable in an area, it may be refused – “unless otherwise salvaged” according to the draft document.
However, the garages may still go ahead if renewal is approved since excavation works count as a commitment.
The draft document suggests that the applicant should not be obliged to fill in a site which has been excavated.
Representations may be made by the public on a permit application once it reaches renewal stage. A public consultation on guidance and procedures closes on February 13.