Letter to the Times of Malta 3 August 2007– Din l-Art Helwa and other environmental NGOs have long been concerned about the persistent lack of sufficient action taken on illegal buildings in areas outside the development zone (ODZ). This inaction gave far too much rein to individuals who chose to break the law and build rooms or extensions without a permit, knowing that years would elapse before any decision against them would be enforced, if at all.
As a result, everywhere you look our countryside and coastline is filled with illegal rooms, walls, boathouses and other structures. Long drawn out enforcement procedures would ensure that for years the owner would be able to reap the benefits of having flouted the law, with the full enjoyment of the illegal property. Eventually the action taken might anyway just consist in a small fine, together with the sanctioning of the illegal works. It is to his credit that Minister George Pullicino has recently pushed proposed Amendments to the planning law through Cabinet in an attempt to rectify this situation. This is a valuable and long overdue step in the right direction, and we can only hope that more on these lines will follow. The new Amendments give Mepa greater powers to control illegal development. No longer will Mepa be obliged to wait until lengthy and protracted cases are heard and decided. Once an illegal building has been erected, their enforcement officers will be able to immediately seal it off or knock it down. The aerial photographs taken by Mepa in May 2007 are to be considered definitive – if an ODZ building does not appear on them and no permit has been issued, then the new Amendments will enable Mepa to take action immediately. Furthermore, if an illegal building is constructed outside the development zone after May 2007, an application for its sanctioning can no longer be submitted before the illegal structure is removed. Enforcement cases dating back to before May 2007 will however continue under the old system, yet a new Appeals Board is to be set up which will focus solely on illegal development. In this way, enforcement cases should be decided within six weeks and will not have to wait in line with all the other appeals being heard. While these Amendments are a step forward, yet it remains to be seen whether they will be implemented adequately. At present the enforcement section at Mepa is grossly under-staffed and under-resourced. It is promised that the capacity of this section will be increased substantially by the end of the year.
The Minister intends to lay these Amendments before Parliament in September – we trust that they will be endorsed and implemented in the shortest time possible, to finally begin to eliminate the rampant illegal construction which is the scourge of our countryside. Anyone with the environment at heart can only be pleased at this step in the right direction.
Dr Petra Bianchi
Director, Din l-Art Helwa