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‘No protest will influence Mepa’s decisions to act’

Photo: Jason Borg

Photo: Jason Borg

Parliamentary Secretary Michael Farrugia promises a clampdown on illegal development but defends his government’s pro-development policies to Mark Micallef and tells angry environmentalists he will “listen, evaluate and move ahead”.

The action against Polidano Brothers last Thursday seemed to be very timely, on the eve of an environmental protest. Was it planned that way?

No, absolutely not.

So it’s a total coincidence...

The truth is that I have met (Charles Polidano) many times... and I warned him not to keep building illegally.

I arranged for him to meet Mepa officials and they had started discussions.

Why did you feel the need to act as a go-between? Why not let Mepa do this work?

Because he came to my office complaining that Mepa was targeting him.

My reply, obviously, was that illegalities are not acceptable and he should stop them and enter into talks with Mepa.

We looked at the illegal structures to see what can be sanctioned and what cannot.

Polidano Brothers has been building illegally in Ħal-Farruġ since the early 1990s but Mepa never took action on this scale.

I am informed other action was taken on another property belonging to Polidano Brothers before this, but beyond Polidano, I have been making clear we plan to beef up enforcement particularly in areas outside development zones (ODZ).

I also said that we would not tolerate situations where illegal development continues any longer.

You mean to say we’re going to see more of this sort of action?

Only a few days ago, we shut down a mushroom farm (in which illegal pesticides were being used).

It’s not like Mepa never took enforcement action in the past, the question is about the frequency. Experience has shown there is more abuse happening out there than Mepa is capable of clamping down on.

Action is being taken because we are strengthening the enforcement section.

In the past week, the enforcement unit went (to Polidano’s site) and took pictures.

It compared them with what there was at the site before and found he had carried on with substantial illegal development, in the face of ongoing discussions with Mepa about the possibility to sanction some buildings and demolish others.

This is why Mepa, in the end, decided to act. I can assure you that no protest will influence Mepa decisions on whether to take action.

The point about the action on Polidano’s property is that these illegalities are not new. We had reported fresh abuse at that very site in Ħal-Farruġ right after the March election. Why was the action taken now?

That is exactly why we were had engaged in discussions with the developer.

Beyond the article in The Times, we had already been talking to the developers to see how we could settle things once and for all.

The point was to try to come to a solution through discussions.

Why was Mepa even contemplating sanctioning their illegal developments? The pattern of some big developers is to build illegally and then ask for a permit later. Polidano Brothers is a case in point.

They may have buildings that could be sanctioned because they would have been built before 2010, when an amendment to the law made it mandatory to demolish illegal buildings before you ask for a permit.

Isn’t sanctioning illegal development an incentive to do it again?

No, because of changes in 2010. In my view, we took a step forward with that amendment and any illegal development made after that date has to be demolished before Mepa considers a permit application.

So we were in discussions with Polidano to establish what was built before 2010 and could be considered for sanctioning... if it’s not acceptable, it will be demolished anyway irrespective of when it was built.

When Mepa enforcement officers arrived at Polidano’s site, they found trucks barricading the entrance. I’m told that the developers filed their request for a court injunction before the enforcement officers were even at the site. Can you confirm this?

Yes, that’s the information I have, at least that is what I was told up to this (Friday) morning.

Mepa officials have asked the police to investigate where the leak could have come from.

So is this leak being investigated?

The information we also have from people who represent the Polidano Group is that the phone call came from Mepa.

Thursday’s action also involved the army and a substantial police presence. Why were so many people involved?

Because you can never tell what can happen.

Did you expect something to happen?

No, but we took all the precautions.

But we saw police officers with automatic weapons. Why?

Our intention was that the enforcement should be carried out without anyone getting hurt and I think that the leak (of the enforcement action) placed Polidano’s own employees, Mepa employees and the security people at risk.

We will be even more rigid with what goes on in ODZ areas

Because the place was barricaded?

The leak was a serious matter because people could have been hurt, and it will be taken seriously.

If the Polidano action was not a political stunt, do you have other targets for the coming weeks?

When I spoke at the launch of our ODZ policy I was very clear. I spoke, for instance, of developments that started off as a stable and then were turned into a fully fledged villa.

This sort of thing is unacceptable and we are currently in the process of making a list of illegalities in ODZ.

Obviously, Mepa will ask to speak to these people to let them know about the enforcement and if no steps are taken we will not hold back from enforcing.

So I would be correct to say that we should see an escalation for this sort of enforcement?

I think enough is enough. The important thing is that when we speak to these people they cooperate and stop challenging the law and stop developing structures illegally.

The catalyst for Saturday’s planned protest was undoubtedly the development at Mistra (a complex of 770 apartments on Mistra Heights). You argued that Mepa’s hands were tied because the project had already been granted an outline (preliminary) permit under the previous administration.

Mepa had overruled this sort of thing in the past, so why not now?

The Mepa board asked for legal advice and looked at tribunal rulings before deciding because it is true there were other cases when Mepa shot down a full development permit after first issuing an outline permit but tribunals then overturned these decisions.

The outline permit asked for a downsizing of the project and it was scaled down.

From some1,000 apartments to almost 800.

Yes, but in reality the open space on site grew. There are almost 10 tumoli of open space in the area and the project can be ready in a particular time frame.

I think the biggest problem is the final product, not the time frame.

But we are not seeing the whole picture here. We are only looking at the picture after the decision.

Imagine if the whole area were sold as plots and instead of this project you had a bunch of blocks with a semi-basement, four storeys of apartments, and a penthouse.

Instead of 800 apartments we would have ended up with 1,200 apartments.

It didn’t need to be like that, either. The local plan specifically asks for a project of a certain aesthetic value... the approved project is going to have a massive visual impact and is going to create a traffic gridlock.

I think you will agree that the designs prepared do respect what the local plan says.

I think many people will disagree with that.

When we issued the policy for tall buildings, we made it clear we would not allow tall or medium-sized buildings to be built near ridges.

And we did this to avoid having something like Mistra.

Nobody contests that on this project the ball was set rolling under the previous administration, but the new board could have done more to scale it down further, or even to stop it.

We are talking of a local plan that allowed this possibility, which, I say, should have never been allowed.

Because of this, we have learnt our lessons, and with the new policies we are issuing, we are fixing things that did not make sense or were unclear.

Let’s say the board couldn’t refuse the permit. Couldn’t it have done more to scale the project down further?

The scaling down was done and it was done by the previous board in the former legislature.

Precisely, so couldn’t the new board you appointed have scaled it back further?

When the board saw the visuals, it accepted them. What I find ironic is that when PN was in government its representative voted in favour of a massive project and then its representative in Opposition voted against a scaled-down version of it (in the outline permit stage).

You are now in government... this government and the board you appointed could have done something to scale down the project further. Why did you rely on what was done by the previous administration and the previous board?

First of all, I never interfered with the board’s decisions, as I do not interfere with decisions taken by Mepa on whether to take action against someone.

Are you satisfied that the board failed to take fresh action on this case to scale the development further?

I look at things as they are, at the policies and the laws and one of the things we are doing is that we look at what is taking place, we listen to public opinion and we try to improve on what there is.

In fact, the planning authority law we are working on will be addressing this, in a bid to remove unnecessary bureaucracy while leaving all the transparency in the process and the possibility to have objectors.

Din L-Art Ħelwa’s Simone Mizzi summed up environmentalists’ concerns when she criticised your government’s apparent haste to rush through policies that open the door to development and she appealed for you to slow down.

It is possible that while you build something out there (at sea), you compensate with something that is positive for the environment elsewhere

That’s interesting because developers tell us the opposite. Basically, we are threading a fine line between environmentalists and developers. Actually, developers...

We are in the situation we are in because some developers put us in it. You are not starting from a clean slate but from a situation where there are a lot of disasters out there.

What is interesting is that developers are asking for one thing, environmentalists are asking for another.

I am going to be looking out for the interest of the Maltese people.

From environmentalists’ perspective, this interest is currently leaning towards the interest of developers.

Absolutely not...

The new draft local plan should enable the government to say exactly what development can be done in each street. Photo: Chris Sant FournierThe new draft local plan should enable the government to say exactly what development can be done in each street. Photo: Chris Sant Fournier

Why not? Convince environmentalists out there this is not the case?

Convince developers out there that I am working in their interest.

Few people will need persuading that developers want more.

What I can say is that if you look at the policies we are issuing, and it’s true that we are issuing a lot of policies because some of the existing ones are ambiguous and we wanted to address this.

How is this the case in relation to your policy to promote agritourism developments in the countryside? On paper, it sounds like a good idea, but in a situation where Mepa is struggling to control illegal abuse, this policy could open the door to more illegal development in the countryside.

We will be even more rigid with what goes on in ODZ areas.

The point is it’s easier said than done.

We will be giving the agricultural sector a new incentive by allowing them to use really small buildings in the countryside to sell their produce, for instance... and incentives to farmers with small fields to work together.

We are offering this for properties that sit on 60 tumoli of land. Environmentalists will tell you to do nothing.

On the other hand, developers will tell you that the 60 tumoli requirement is too much, and that it should be lowered to 30 or even 15 tumoli.

Nobody will deny that all these examples are desirable aims, but the suspicion is that this policy will be used as a loophole. Why not start with the restoration and expansion of existing farms in the countryside rather encourage building of new ones?

If you look at the policy, you will find developers will not be able to get involved in agritourism unless they have the product.

Unless there is a connection to agriculture...

... or to the farmers...

The problem is the loopholes. People do not have faith that there is the set up to enforce across the board and with all your good will these things take time.

We will be making clear policies and the enforcement section will keep being strengthened and increased and action will be taken.

Since your election, you have made planning permits cheaper, fast tracked, you opened the door to development in the countryside, you are looking at land reclamation projects. It is very clear you have a pro-development outlook, what do you say to the people who are already worried we have too much?

Actually, land reclamation will be done so as not to have more residential development.

But what is the justification?

For instance, I’m not hoping for this but let’s say that someone comes with a proposal for a Formula 1 racetrack that would make Malta one of the racing destinations within 10 years and would generate huge business.

Where would we put that on the island? There may be projects that are massive but others that are environmentally friendly.

It’s very hard to have land reclamation that is environmentally friendly.

You’d be surprised.

You are going to cement over a tract of coast. How is that environmentally friendly?

When I launched the land reclamation proposal, I asked people to think outside the box.

Even if you build an eco-village it would still not be environmentally friendly because you are going to cement over the coast.

It is possible that while you build something out there, you compensate with something that is positive for the environment elsewhere.

What do you say to people out there who are worried about the government’s pro-development trend?

We will listen to them, we will listen to everybody, we will be listening to the Maltese people as a whole. After we evaluate the feedback we will decide and move ahead.

Something that many people find frustrating with construction in Malta has to do with aesthetics. In 2013, we still keep seeing new blocks of apartments being built that are clearly getting it very wrong. What is your government’s plan to deal with this problem?

The government’s reply will be in the new local plan that is being drafted. We are working it out road by road. We are taking pictures of each house and each street.

The idea is that we will be able to say exactly what can be done in each street.

When the previous government introduced a policy through which people could drop a house and build two apartments and a penthouse, it effectively ruined some of the streetscapes across Malta and Gozo.

Now we have to see how we can make up for the damage done.

Will people have an input in this discussion?

Yes, as from March/April we will be publishing the draft local plan. We plan to have it online and also at Mepa and in local councils.

We will be saying how a street should change so that we could remedy certain problems from the past. We cannot grab a chaser and cut certain properties to bring them in line but we can find ways to compensate.

This is a massive undertaking. When will this exercise be completed?

We are saying that the public consultation should not be six weeks but three months, to give people the opportunity to have their say.

We are hoping that by the first half of 2015 the whole process will be ready. By March or April we hope to publish the first draft.

Construction will be the main topic of discussion in Times Talk, presented by Times of Malta on TVM every Tuesday at 6.55pm.

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