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How to work the planning system

What was once virgin agricultural land in Bidnija has been formalised into a variety of amenities behind high masonry walls, by breaking all the rules in the planning books. Most of this development has now been sanctioned by the Planning Commission. 

What was once virgin agricultural land in Bidnija has been formalised into a variety of amenities behind high masonry walls, by breaking all the rules in the planning books. Most of this development has now been sanctioned by the Planning Commission. 

Away from the Delimara Floating Storage Unit, Townsquare and Mrieħel high-rises and other cause celebres which hog the limelight, there is a constant onslaught on countryside ODZ areas which goes on under the radar, without anyone batting an eyelid except for those directly impacted by the largesse of the Planning Authority.

Take a site in Triq il-Ħzejjen in Bidnija, as outlandish a name and as backwater a location as it can get. For centuries this was a farmers’ hamlet, until it fell in the sights of those aspiring to develop a luxurious countryside residence which chimes with the agricultural character of the area.

The site’s convoluted history starts off with the issuing of a permit, on June 5, 2010, for the development of pool facilities, water reservoir and tool store within the precincts of a previously approved two-storey farmhouse.

The timeline gets much more interesting when, the following year, an enforcement notice (ECF 00546/11) is issued by Mepa upon a report by the Ramblers Association, since the previously granted permit had simply been used to build a second swimming pool outside the cartilage of the two-storey farmhouse – on agricultural land lying opposite.

This was not the only flagrant abuse which was perpetrated on site: perimeter walls made of masonry rather than rubble, and two metres high rather than the sanctioned 1.2 metres, were constructed in order to screen further illegal development within the site of the new swimming pool, since they were not needed to retain soil cover.

A gargantuan (63 square metres) ‘agricultural store’ was also built behind these high walls, an unjustified building given the total number of tumoli of farmland held by the applicant. It is allegedly (as per case officer’s report) being used as a garage, its hideous green aluminium apertures and galvanised metal of the door also jarring with the vernacular nature of the farm holdings in the area. Yet another blatant infringement on site is the construction of dog kennels and of a dog enclosure.

The bottom line of such glaring and rampant infringements is that a former field lying opposite the originally permitted site (and not within), for a total area spanning over 1,400 square metres, has been formalised into a country residence with a swimming pool (the applicant had already been granted a permit for another swimming pool right across the road) and other amenities, all conveniently shiel­ded from view by high perimeter walls and landscaping.

Against such brazen behaviour, one would expect the full force of the law to be applied to the applicant. Initially, there was some hope that this would indeed be so. When an application for sanctioning of such flagrant infringements was submitted, Mepa would not even consider it and issued a screening letter in December 2011 stating that the illegalities could not be sanctioned. In the space of a few weeks, the applicant, through its architect Robert Musumeci, promptly submitted an appeal against the decision, which was decided upon a full three years later, in February 2015, when the planning institutional landscape had changed completely.

In fact, the appeal was decided upon by the newly-instituted ERT (Environment Review Tribunal), which is actually a misnomer as it has little if any environmental ethos. Predictably, the ERT endorsed the arguments of the applicant in the appeal and ordered the Planning Directorate to re-consider the applicant’s sanctioning application.

The re-consideration was not made by the Planning Board but at Planning Commission stage, where probing media and NGOs are largely excluded and which is mainly composed of architects.

This tragi-comedy came to a fitting end in December 2016 when the Planning Commission, headed by architect Elizabeth Ellul, who orchestrated the drafting of the revised ODZ regulations in 2014-2015, in one of its perfunctory sittings sanctioned the illegalities. This was despite a strong recommendation against approval by the Planning Directorate through its case officer.

As a token gesture to those opposing such scandalous sanctioning, the Planning Commission decreed that the de facto garage (originally permitted as an agricultural store) be demolished and the second pool be converted to a reservoir, to be covered under a layer of soil, while all other infringements were allowed to stand.

Bottom line is that the applicant worked the planning system to a tee to his/her own advantage, by exploiting to the full the provisions of the revised ODZ regulations and by engaging an architect who played a part in the revision of these regulations through his role as planning consultant to government. This is well and truly a textbook case of what’s wrong with the current planning system and encourages future applicants to try their hand by conveying the message that patience pays off at the end of the day.

Farmers who have witnessed at first hand the encroachment by non-farmers on agricultural land in Bidnija and who have objected with Ramblers to such hideous developments understandably feel short-changed by the current planning system. The farmer affected by this particular development has now been forced to access his fields through a narrower corridor.

I wonder if those responsible for this mess can live with sucha reality?

alan.deidun@gmail.com

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