Falzon: please stop calling it ‘amnesty’
As the government considers regularising planning infringements, Parliamentary Secretary Michael Falzon insists it is not an amnesty. He tells Kurt Sansone the government will not leave things as they are and said any wrongdoers will ‘have to pay a price’.
Let me start with the most recent controversy; the amnesty [on planning infringements]...
We don’t have an amnesty and we will not be giving an amnesty.
So what is being considered?
You are correct in saying ‘what is being considered’ because we are still at the stage of evaluating options. This administration has no intention of giving an amnesty. An amnesty is a blanket measure that forgives all wrongdoing without any form of reparation being sought.
It’s a legalistic view.
No. You can look it up in the dictionary... what is being considered is a regularisation process. An amnesty means that anybody who built incorrectly will be forgiven and no penalties will be paid. This is the cardinal difference between an amnesty and a regularisation scheme. The word amnesty is being used wrongly and we have no intention of going down that road.
You are saying the individual will pay for his [planning] sins but it also means that someone who has built illegally will continue to benefit from the fruits of his wrongdoing.
I agree with you. But we have situations where someone has done something wrong and nobody did anything to rectify the situation. This person enjoyed the fruits of his wrongdoing, continues to do so and the chances are nobody will ever do anything to change this. I could be a coward and leave things as they are. However, there is another option. I will look at the wrongdoing, determine its extent, regularise the position and for doing so the person will have to pay a price.
There is another choice; you can pull down the illegality.
Tell me who will remove all the wrongdoing done over the past 30 years.
Isn’t this an admission of failure?
No. It will be an admission of failure if nothing is done and everything is left as is for another 50 years. If someone convinces me he can pull down the illegalities perpetrated by everyone without getting bogged down in court procedures that try to stall the process by claiming vested rights and legal expectations, I will agree with you. But this does not tally with reality. This administration can be cowardly and refrain from taking decisions like others did for years on end or acknowledge reality and try to reap some benefit from the wrongdoing.
And what about those who obeyed the law and waited years for the planning process to end before obtaining a permit?
These will not be castigated through a regularisation scheme.
After observing the law they will see others who did not even bother to apply for a permit benefiting from their illegal actions. What message is this?
You are agreeing with me when you say ‘they benefited from their illegal action’. With this scheme the individual will not continue benefiting...
But what message does this send out to honest people?
In no way should a regularisation scheme send out the message that being honest is the wrong thing to do. But decisions have to be taken.
What type of illegalities are we talking of?
Tell me who will remove all the wrongdoing done over the past 30 years
At this stage, despite all the speculation that has been doing the rounds, this is something that is still being considered.
Is it a question of turning this consideration into a concrete proposal for approval by Cabinet? Or are you still undecided whether you should go for it?
What I decide will not be the be all and end all. I am part of an administration. We are considering a regularisation scheme and we are still at the stage of considering the options. However, it will not be a blanket scheme and definitely not allow people to go scot-free.
Will the scheme include commercial establishments that have reaped benefits of a commercial nature as opposed to a private individual who built a window that is 20cm bigger than approved?
The scheme still has to be devised but what you say justifies what we are trying to do because there are establishments that have been benefiting for years and nobody had the guts to do anything.
Is the aim of the scheme to have a windfall income for the government?
No, but God forbid there will be no penalty paid.
And the individual will keep the illegality.
Regularisation of construction work is one thing and regularisation of use is another.
Will the scheme cover both aspects?
We will have to look at both aspects but the primary aim is to regularise construction work where this is possible.
You are implying the scheme will apply on a case-by-case basis. A reason why we have so many illegalities is that enforcement has been lacking and this is often blamed on lack of human resources. Does the planning authority have the resources to enter into the individual merits of each case if it never had the resources to enforce its own rules?
The more than 10,000 enforcement orders did not crop up now. They are a legacy that has grown since the authority’s birth more than 20 years ago. The current scenario is not acceptable. We cannot have thousands of irregularities nobody ever paid for. Regularisation is a practical option.
The implication of the new scheme is that it will apply to all infringements: Large projects and illegalities committed in outside development zones.
God forbid we treat every infringement in the same way. It is a fact that nobody is happy with the current situation. What is wrong with finding the courage to do something about it? These decisions do not make you popular but they have to be taken, otherwise we will continue saying these things are bad and simply allow them to persist.
What has happened to the Strategic Plan for the Environment and Development (Sped), which will form the basis of all planning regulations?
The Sped has passed through the consultation phase and will shortly be tabled in Parliament.
There has been criticism that the voluminous Structure Plan, which Sped will replace, has been whittled down to a short document.
Before, we had a voluminous, complicated and bureaucratic document that gave rise to conflicting policies, which gave us the result we have today. Now we are trying to make things simpler and understandable and I believe this will make for a healthier discussion.
The fear is that a simplified document will lead to greater leniency in planning regulation. Does it run that risk?
Does volume and complication make one book better than another? If this is the argument being floated by some, I beg to differ. It is the 300-page, complicated documents that create loopholes. I urge everyone to give Sped a chance; it is not cast in stone and further discussion will take place in Parliament.
Land is a scarce resource and has been at the centre of political controversy, which makes this a very sensitive piece of legislation. The country cannot afford to give it a chance with the risk of failure.
I agree. But we have to ask ourselves whether things will get better by leaving the regulations as they are? This administration has changed things already. We cut planning fees by half. We allowed hotels to build two extra floors if they satisfied certain criteria. We introduced regulations allowing boutique hotels in Valletta to be developed through the simpler DNO (development notification order) process, which proved to be a massive success. These changes simplified planning procedures. Today everybody says how good these measures are but they may be good because they are simple.
Is this government inclined towards developers or environmentalists?
It is a mistake to think that the government should be inclined towards one sector at the expense of the other. The government is there for everyone. It would be wrong to be inclined only towards developers. It would be equally wrong to be inclined only towards environmentalists. We have to find a balance. But this administration took decisions that have made us unpopular with developers. The new regulations that prevent semi-basement apartments from being turned into dwellings; the restrictions that prevent buildings from extending more than 30 metres deep into a plot irrespective of how big the land area is; the increase in the minimum living space. I have had developers telling me off because of these regulations.
Will they be enforced?
They are being enforced. No applications will be accepted for developments that cater for semi-basement dwellings and those that do not satisfy the minimum space requirements will be rejected. There will be those who break the law...
We have no intention of extending the development boundaries in an alarming way
… And wait for a regularisation scheme 10 years down the line.
At least you have used the word regularisation not amnesty. But we will enforce regulations. Developers did not take kindly to the 30-metre limit but what is wrong in having a government that encourages economic development? Do we want economic gridlock? We are trying to find the right balance.
Before the election there was a commitment (by Joseph Muscat) that development boundaries would not be extended but now we know they will be touched. What happened?
Nothing happened but there are oddities that have to be fixed...
What are they?
Oddities that emerged after the rationalisation process of 2006. A lot of creativity went into that exercise.
Will this new exercise reverse what was done wrong in 2006 or will it extend the development boundaries in those areas where you say creativity was employed?
The government has a duty to arrange the bad things done and redress any injustices caused by the 2006 exercise. However, I promise the new exercise will not be creative and will be based on transparent and clear criteria. This administration has no intention of extending the development boundaries in an alarming way.
Does this mean that if the boundary in a certain area was extended when it should not have, this will be reversed?
The exercise is still under way and the intention is to change those things that should not have been done and implement the changes needed to ensure consistency.
So certain development boundaries could be extended while others could be reduced.
Nothing is excluded.
When will this happen?
I cannot give a timeframe yet because there are other things in the pipeline such as the approval of Sped and the de-merger process of the planning and environment functions of Mepa.
How will you be voting in the spring hunting referendum?
This is a rhetorical question. But this is not just about hunting because when one considers the European Court of Justice ruling that allowed spring hunting, I don’t think Maltese citizens should be considered second-class citizens compared to their European counterparts. I will be voting Yes because I believe the right enjoyed by a minority should not be removed. The question that follows is natural: Who will be next after the hunters if the No vote wins?
A number of lawyers like you have dismissed this argument as illogical because the law regulating spring hunting is different from the legal framework that regulates, for example, fireworks.
This is an abrogative referendum that binds the government of the day to abide by the result. Let us assume somebody decides to collect signatures to remove Legal Notice 33.03, which regulates the time when fireworks could be let off and how this should be done. If the abrogative referendum passes the effect of removing this legal notice would be the same as that of spring hunting.
No, the effect would be that enthusiasts could let off fireworks at whatever time they want.
That is your interpretation. You can never let off fireworks at any time of the day because there will be reports to the police over the disturbance this will cause people.
If the legal notice allowing spring hunting is removed, the remaining legislation in force will be the Birds Directive, which does not allow spring hunting to take place. The Birds Directive is the overriding law. There is no overriding law that bans fireworks.
Until now we have applied an exemption for spring hunting as is every country’s right to do so. Malta applies one exemption while other EU countries make use of multiple derogations to the Birds Directive.
If the No vote wins, should hunters respect the decision?
Of course they should. Everybody should respect the result. If we are going to play by the rules, everybody should abide by them, including hunters.