Din l-Art Helwa’s Heritage & Environment Protection Committee has recently put a lot of its energy into arguing against proposed large projects in areas which lie outside the development zone, and which the Committee considered to be unacceptable. These include two projects which have frequently been in the newspaper headlines over the last six months: at Ramla l-Hamra and at Ta’ Cenc. On a more positive note, a proposal has been accepted by the Cabinet to amend the planning law, which would give the Malta Environment and Planning Authority (MEPA) greater powers to enforce action against illegal buildings outside the development zone.Ramla l-HamraThe Ramla l-Hamra issue intensified in April, when MEPA approved a permit for the building of 23 villas and swimming pools as a ‘redevelopment’ of the now defunct Ulysses Lodge complex overlooking Ramla l-Hamra Bay in Gozo. The negative reaction to this permit among the general public and many environmental NGOs prompted a national ‘Save Gozo’ rally which took place in Valletta in April, in which Din l-Art Helwa participated supported by many of our members who joined us on the day. Din l-Art Helwa, together with the Gaia Foundation, has lodged an appeal against this permit. In the meantime, other parties have also officially asked for the permit to be revoked, and MEPA is presently considering these objections and has yet to give a final reply. In its statements against the Ramla l-Hamra project, Din l-Art Helwa focused on various issues, including the fact that almost one third of the area approved for ‘redevelopment’ at Ramla Bay consists of structures that were built without a permit, and that these cannot qualify for redevelopment. These structures consist of storage rooms, large elevated terraces used as carparks, and an elevated road with supporting walls. MEPA has claimed that there was no need for a permit to build these structures as they were considered ‘ancillary’ to the development Ulysses Lodge, which was built in the 1970s. Din l-Art Helwa fears that a dangerous precedent is being set by this case. Together with the Gaia Foundation, we have requested clarification on whether this means that any rooms or terraces built in the 1970s without a permit as ‘ancillary’ to another building, in an area outside the development zone, can be considered as legal footprint that qualifies for redevelopment. MEPA has also claimed that since a permit had been granted for the original Ulysses Lodge building, the surrounding area was considered to be ‘committed’. Does this mean that the undeveloped area around any permitted structure outside the development zone can be considered to be ‘committed’?Ta’ CencThe original application for development at Ta’ Cenc was submitted in 1996. In 2005, the first draft of the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the development was submitted, and Din l-Art Helwa had lodged its comments and objections to MEPA. Din l-Art Helwa then launched a petition against the development in 2006, which collected around 10,000 signatures. At the time of the petition, the application included 57 villas in the area of the site near Mgarr ix-Xini, 49 bungalows on the Xewkija side, a new five-star hotel, and an extension to the existing hotel. This summer, a second draft of the EIS was submitted to MEPA, with some revisions to the original plans. The number of proposed villas and bungalows had been reduced to 38 and 36 respectively, and the proposed new hotel had been reduced by one storey. Din l-Art Helwa continues to oppose this project, and on the same grounds as previously. The Stucture Plan allows some development at Ta’ Cenc, but only in the vicinity of the existing hotel. This is the only development permissible. The present application proposes to build 38 villas on the ridge overlooking Mgarr ix-Xini, and attempts to argue that the term ‘vicinity’ can be construed as referring to this ridge, which lies right across the plateau in the area of the site furthest from the hotel. This interpretation of the word ‘vicinity’ is incorrect, as this would imply that all other areas of the site are also to be taken as being in the vicinity of the existing hotel, and consequently that the entire site is subject to development. This clearly goes against the intention of the Structure Plan, where a distinction is made between land that is in the vicinity of the existing hotel and, by implication, land that is not in the vicinity of the hotel. Illegal Buildings Outside the Development ZoneDin 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 very soon – 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.