Is MEPA reform going to be just more of the same – FAA

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Is MEPA reform going to be just more of the same - FAAFlimkien ghal Ambjent Ahjar said that it is heartened by the MEPA Board’s request for a revision of plans for a project to construct 164 apartments, 232 garages and 960 square metres of commercial space on the site of the former Seven-Up factory in Hamrun. The issued raises at the hearing included the negative impact on the views of the Urban Conservation Area near the Wignacourt Aqueduct water tower, inadequate pedestrian areas and the traffic problems that such an intensive development could create, given the narrow streets of the area.

“MEPA chairman Austin Walker’s comment that the project appears to constitute overdevelopment in a dense residential area signals an important shift in MEPA’s attitude on urban development in the context of Malta’s over 76,000 vacant housing units.”

FAA said that significantly, this comes in the wake of other decisions in favour of the interests of residents or the environment. In May the MEPA Board refused a permit to construct an animal farm near residences even though the project already had an outline permit which however was not deemed to be in the public interest. Similarly, permits to build villas in Safi and stables in Zurrieq were turned down due to being Out of Development Zone (ODZ).

“It is therefore disappointing to see that while the MEPA Board is refusing permits which violate the Structure Plan or are not in the public interest, the DCC Boards are granting such permits. In March 2010, the DCC A board granted a permit for the ‘temporary’ garaging of road constructors’ heavy vehicles in spite of the MEPA Directorate’s recommendation to refuse. The proposed garages are not acceptable since the site has not been identified for industrial purposes but is in an ODZ Rural Settlement contrary to Local Plan Policies (see photos at: www.faa.org.mt/wrong-decisions )”

“Similarly, in June, the DCC C board granted a permit to demolish a house in the Sliema Urban Conservation Area (UCA), in spite of the fact that demolitions of facades are not allowed in UCA. Both the MEPA Directorate and the Heritage Advisory Committee agreed that “the existing facade of the building has contextual value that contributes to the character of the streetscape and thus it should be retained.” Moreover the project was granted four floors in a two-floor area (see photos at: www.faa.org.mt/suca-threat)”

“Worse still, in the case of the Mosta football stadium, an application was submitted to cover several unauthorized changes to plans including the opening of windows and a nine-course structure built when the permit only granted five courses (see photos at: www.faa.org.mt/mosta-football-ground ). This permit was approved before the two week representation period ended just one week ago, and without even one public hearing.”

FAA went on to say that while one would like to have faith in the process of MEPA reform, these three examples show that the spirit of reform is still far from being put into practice. Although one may appreciate the MEPA Chairman’s candour, his words this week reflect a totally unacceptable tolerance of planning mistakes: “Wrong decisions are taken and will continue to be taken….Neither this reform nor any future reform will guarantee that wrong decisions are not taken.”

They concluded by saying that the public has a right to expect a structure that ensures that correct decisions are taken on such important matters, and that the MEPA system provides remedies for any mistakes and accountability for those who fail in their duty. Corrective measures are imperative. The plan to introduce a €2,500 fine for ‘frivolous’ appeals will further weaken the system of redress, favouring abusive developers and inhibiting residents from using their full rights to object to unjust permits. Is MEPA reform going to be just more of the same?

Photo: Permit to demolish and build four floors in the Sliema Urban Conservation Area, a no-demolition, two storey zone.

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