Why are Outside Development Zone (ODZ) permits granted if the same term implies that no development is allowed within these zones? Strictly speaking, an area which is ODZ can only be developed if the development boundary is moved in order to include that area within the limits of development which requires the consent of Parliament.
This process does not apply only in those special cases where the development is strictly required for agricultural purposes. A number are genuine cases as laws allow the granting of permits to build structures for agricultural uses.
However this is one of the most abused loop holes and many of these structures can be built inside the development zones in special areas indicated in the Local Plans. Stables, for example, may be easily used and converted into homes for people. Chicken and rabbit farms are nowadays factories and little rural remains of them.
Only buildings worth keeping for historical, archeological or architectural reasons should be allowed to have extensions and these if possible within their own footprints. Boat houses are most times converted into summer residences and unless they have been in existence for many decades and are genuinely used as boathouses these should never be recognised as such.
Over the years applicants have learnt how to abusively exploit ODZ permits (which are misguidedly granted by MEPA) as an excuse to build their own dwellings. And this is not to mention the boathouses which have been bullying governments for years.
Such bad examples have led to many people losing faith in the system. Genuine farmers lose hope because of bureaucratic lengthy applications. Unfortunately, even people who apply for minor insignificant amendments in their houses in urban places, have to wait for months to be given a go-ahead by MEPA. This leads to loss of confidence in governments and MEPA and even encourages some to use corrupt practices to beat the system.
How can the system be improved? As long as people in power remain not accountable or responsible for their actions, such ODZ development will continue. ODZ permits should be temporary permits and should remain valid only till the reason for which the permit was given remains applicable. For example if a farmer is given a permit to build a room in his farmed land this permit should last only until the land is being farmed. Also, additions to the buildings should be strictly and directly related to that agricultural purpose for which the permit was granted. If the land is no longer used for agricultural purposes then this room should be removed.
This implies that such structures should be designed and constructed in such a way as to be easily dismantled and the area restored to its original state at the expense of the owner. If Government decides that it is in the public interest to grant a ‘urbanising’ permit ODZ then instead of delegating this chore to MEPA as it does with all normal permits, it should issue the permit directly itself. This will free MEPA from having to violate the very policies it is supposed to be safeguarding in Government’s name. The public will also know more clearly who is accountable for such decisions.
Two last points regarding recent proposals put forward by the government. The government is proposing land reclamation. Unfortunately this is already being practiced on a small scale ruining what is left of our very few beaches and coast. Look at Marsalforn, Buġibba and Xlendi. Concrete is still being laid on the natural coast and this is changing the whole scenario from a natural beauty to an artificial block of cement.
The government is also proposing a scheme for agri-tourism which could lead to more abuse with more building in ODZ. There are already a number of abandoned places in our countryside which can be easily rehabilitated and used for this purpose So why use more virgin land which is becoming a precious rarity in our small islands?
The first and foremost duty of any Government is to safeguard the common good. Issuing permits or letting people build ‘boat’ houses along our coasts to acquire more votes is no argument and in any case is in direct conflict with the principle of what constitutes the common good. We environmentalists also have a vote!