Government amended local plans dozens of times while claiming ‘hands were tied’

Extensive changes to local plans regulating building heights and zoning have contributed to the proliferation of Malta’s construction boom over the past decade.

 

Extensive changes to local plans regulating building heights and zoning have contributed to the proliferation of Malta’s construction boom over the past decade, despite government claims that its “hands are tied” as a result of the decades-old zoning plans.

The local plans, originally laid out in 2006, have been subject to “partial reviews” more than 20 times over the last ten years, expanding land use, raising height limitations and facilitating development.

Alongside the introduction of planning policies such as DC15, the local plan amendments contradict a government narrative which counters overdevelopment concerns by claiming its “hands are tied” by zoning policies introduced before the Labour Party came to power in 2013.

Following a parliamentary question by Opposition MP Graziella Galea, Planning Minister Stefan Zrinzo Azzopardi tabled a document showing “local plan partial reviews” undertaken by the ministry between 2013 and 2021. The tabled document shows that many of the ‘partial reviews’ allowed for increased development and removed planning requirements.

The tabled information directly contradicts government statements on overdevelopment concerns, including those made by Prime Minister Robert Abela following a national protest in May, which saw thousands gathering in Valletta to raise their voice against the issue.

In comments to journalists in the days following the protest, Abela said that because of the local plans from 2006, “the government’s hands were tied due to what the previous administration did.  It’s not as simple as saying the government will change the local plans.”

Abela’s assertion has been repeated by a number of other ministers, including Lands Minister Silvio Schembri.

Nevertheless, the government has changed local plans repeatedly, including a recent proposal for the amendment of local plans in an undeveloped area of Birżebbuġa to allow for the development of a model airstrip for enthusiasts. The local plan ‘review’ is the latest in a series of such reviews.

Between 2013 and 2021, local plans have been changed at least 23 times. The number does not include smaller amendments made through development notification orders, developments allowed through new Outside Development Zone (ODZ) regularisation policies, or individual developments permitted outside local plan limits by the Planning Authority.

While some of the changes introduced in local plan reviews combatted urban sprawl, others directly abetted increased development.

These included a 2015 review which allowed raised building heights in Mellieħa, a 2019 amendment which expanded a development area in Mosta, and another that year which increased building heights in an area of Dingli as a “transition with ODZ.”

A 2021 amendment allowed permanent residences at Ħal Ferħ in the wake of Corinthia Group’s controversial plans for a massive tourism complex at the current abandoned area.

Another 2021 amendment allowed for increased commercial development in Ta Qali, while an additional amendment that year abolished building heights in Marsa and Mrieħel industrial estates.

The latter estate, amid concerns of government-business collusion, then saw the development of the Quad Towers project, which has led to significant impact on the Maltese skyline.

The extensive local plan “partial reviews” contribute to the increased development alongside additional government policies, such as DC15 and its annexes, introduced in 2015. The policy specified various regulations, including an interpretation which allowed for increased building height limitations.

In an expert and stakeholder discussion on housing, Antoine Zammit, one of the architects behind the policy, claimed its limits had been abused and “unfortunately taken as absolutes”, with the best practices outlined “ignored”.

                           

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