Malta
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Suspension of construction works to await appeal ‘welcome but not enough’

Prime Minister Robert Abela’s announcement of the introduction of a measure for construction works to be halted while an appeal is underway was met with positive reactions from several industry stakeholders, but developers warn that it will cause property costs to balloon.

In a tweet on Monday, Abela announced that cabinet had approved a “fairer system for planning appeals” which would suspend works until appeals are resolved. The measure would shortly be presented for public consultation, Abela said.

Stakeholders who spoke to Times of Malta welcomed the news, saying it is a long-overdue measure that will tip the balance towards a fairer appeals process. However, they say, this needs to be balanced by a quicker and leaner appeals process.

Current planning laws allow construction to go ahead while the appeal is heard, often leading to absurd situations where a development permit is revoked long after the development has been completed.

Stakeholders pointed to several examples of this, including a Pietá resident whose house was dwarfed by a development next door, an eight-storey hotel in Mellieħa, and the development on the site of the former Mistra Village which was excavated while under appeal.

In a similar case, a swimming pool in Foreign Minister Ian Borg’s countryside villa had its permit revoked earlier this year, long after it had already been built.

Positive step but no reform

Andre Callus, on behalf of Moviment Graffitti, told Times of Malta that while the measure is a step in the right direction, it is only the tip of the iceberg and needs to be accompanied by more sweeping changes to planning laws.

“Let’s not confuse this step with much-needed planning reform. This is a basic measure which fixes a manifestly unjust flaw in the system.”

Callus questioned why it was taking so long for this measure to be introduced, pointing to the fact that the prime minister had already made a similar promise in his Workers’ Day speech earlier this year.

Lawyer Claire Bonello has worked on several planning appeals. File photo: Chris Sant FournierLawyer Claire Bonello has worked on several planning appeals. File photo: Chris Sant Fournier

Lawyer Claire Bonello was similarly cautious, saying that although the need for this measure has long been felt, she had not yet seen the consultation document and “the devil is always in the detail”.

Nonetheless, Bonello welcomed the change, saying the current system had made a mockery of the appeals process.

“What is the point of an appeal if it is just an academic exercise? People are spending money on appeals for no reason whatsoever.”

Like Callus, Bonello believes that broader changes need to be ushered in, particularly in terms of strengthening the Environment and Planning Review Tribunal (EPRT), the body which hears planning appeals.

Strengthening the tribunal, Bonello argues, will help eliminate delays in the hearing of appeals, and empower it to weed out frivolous appeals.

“If we strengthen the tribunal and introduce clear deadlines, this will be beneficial to everyone involved. Ultimately, we have to stop viewing people who appeal as nuisances. People have the right to protect their properties and neighbourhoods, since planning directly affects our quality of life,” she said.

Swifter appeal process needed

Kamra tal-Periti president Andre Pizzuto agreed, telling Times of Malta that while the measure “provides greater protections for the appellants and the integrity of the appeal process”, it needs to go hand in hand with a more thorough reform of the EPRT.

Kamra tal-Periti President Andre Pizzuto welcomed the measure. File photo: Chris Sant FournierKamra tal-Periti President Andre Pizzuto welcomed the measure. File photo: Chris Sant Fournier

“What we would hope to see in the draft to be proposed for consultation is a reform in the EPRT and additional resources allocated to it to ensure that appeals can be heard expeditiously, and ideally within no more than three months to ensure all parties are granted a fair and due process.”

We have to stop viewing people who appeal as nuisances

Douglas Salt, manager and board member of Frank Salt Real Estate, was of a similar view, arguing that any “draconian change” needs to be balanced by an appeals process that is more efficient.

Noting that most appeals are “justifiable”, Salt said the processing of appeals needs to take place within a “realistic time frame with no undue delays” in order to create a fair and efficient system for all.

Describing the measure as “a good step forward”, Din L-Art Ħelwa president Alex Torpiano said the government is acknowledging there is a problem, following years of efforts by the organisation and other eNGOs to have the issue addressed.

Nevertheless, Torpiano insisted, “we would need to look at the detail before we can say whether it will really be a positive development”.

Like Bonello, Torpiano believes that the current system is flawed, pointing out that “we have yet to see any building, built on the basis of a permit which is null, demolished”.

He argues that the introduction of this measure is in the interest of both the broader public and stakeholders in the construction sector who operate in good faith.

“I think that a good part of the construction sector, that believes in following rules and regulations in the interest of quality, will be pleased. Others might not be.”

Measure will raise prices

Developers who spoke to Times of Malta had mixed reactions, warning that the likely effect of the measure will be to further increase risk and uncertainty in the sector, resulting in higher costs for prospective buyers.

They argue that construction projects risk being left in a lengthy administrative limbo with no end in sight, creating severe cash flow for developers who will have no choice but to minimise these risks by increasing development costs.

Douglas Salt, manager and board member of Frank Salt Real Estate.Douglas Salt, manager and board member of Frank Salt Real Estate.

Some developers estimate that this could cause property prices to increase by as much as 20 per cent.

Furthermore, they argue, this is yet another measure that will continue to exacerbate the bureaucratic and administrative delays within the sector. The industry’s excessive bureaucracy, they say, has made it impossible to work or plan efficiently, driving many developers to give up on the industry altogether.

They claim that this situation risks bringing about a sharp decrease in the supply of property, impacting the affordability of housing and, at worst, raising the spectre of a housing crisis as seen elsewhere across Europe.

However, like many other stakeholders in the sector, several developers believe that the measure can have a positive effect if it is introduced in tandem with other measures tying the courts and tribunal to tight timelines when deciding upon appeals.

Having appeals decided in a timely manner, they say, would reduce uncertainty and benefit both the objector and the developer.