Construction - pexels

A planning policy amendment currently up for consultation will “provide a clearer direction for the property market,” according to the Malta Development Association.

The lobby on Monday (today) issued a strongly worded statement that “rejects all allegations that the proposed amendment intensifies development.”

The amendment in question relates to Policy P35 of the 2015 document Development Control Design Policy, Guidance and Standards (DC15).

The DC15 document introduced a controversial system of establishing building heights by converting the number of floors set out in the Local Plans into meterage, and then re-converting back to floors according to a table laid out in Annex 2.

The legal wizardry made possible by this policy has changed Malta’s skyline, allowing buildings to soar above the streetscape in what have become known as ‘pencil developments’.

The policy has been challenged in court, and a landmark decision by the Chief Justice in 2023 made it clear that the new height limits were just that – limitations, which does not mean that any permit for that height has to be granted.

In what has been widely interpreted as a way to go around that decision and ensure that Malta’s construction booms continues unabated, the Planning Authority announced a proposed amendment to the policy to “enhance certainty and eliminate potential discrepancies resulting from varied interpretations of the policy.”

Various environmental organisations last week warned that “the policy change will transform several towns and villages into more crowded and congested areas than envisaged under current legislation.”

Over the weekend, independent politician Arnold Cassola said that “planning policy in Malta is about to take a dramatic turn for the worse.”

He said that the court decisions against the PA’s interpretation of its own policies meant that the authority has been “wrongfully applying the law” since 2015.

“These court decisions set a monumental precedent, and thus the PA can no longer get away with sanctioning rampant abuse. Or so we thought.

“In the wake of these court decisions the government has decided that rather than reforming the PA so that it may act lawfully and in service of the common good, it will instead rewrite the law so that unrestrained construction can continue unchecked.”

Piling on the pressure, the Opposition Nationalist Party on Monday (today) released a statement saying that the change “consolidates and formalises ambiguous misinterpretations.”

It described DC15 as a document that “weakened the planning system by opening up policies to dangerous precedents and suspicious interpretations, [and] is one of the causes of increased unplanned density, cramped infrastructure, environmental pollution, high property prices and a worsening of the environments where we live, work and rest.”

On Sunday, an interview with DC15 author Perit Antoine Zammit even saw him come out against the proposed amendment, which he “understands … would essentially be formalising an absolute interpretation of building heights as a guaranteed right to the applicant, that ignores the fact that the policy says that the height must also be evaluated in its context.”

“The principle of how this is being done and how heights were calculated, I don’t think that it is correct, and I don’t think it is a good thing that we are squashing in as many floors as possible right at the threshold of sanitary standards,” he told The Times.

The MDA’s response

Despite the criticism, the MDA is arguing that “the proposed amendment only seeks to clarify what was already established in the Local Plan of 2006 as followed by the DC15 document which reflects how the height of buildings is to be interpreted, i.e. in metres as opposed to floors.

“It is also completely untrue that Policy P35 of DC15 amends what was approved in the Local Plans established in 2006.”

The MDA said that “what is perhaps commonly misinterpreted as intensification is the situation relating to the semibasement maisonette which is nowadays no longer permitted as there has been a shift that habitable spaces had to be built at street level.

“With this shift in mind, the height of the floors had to be reduced accordingly so that the height limitations established in the aforementioned local plans are respected and so the overall height of the building remains the same.”

The lobby is seemingly in agreement with the Government, saying that “the proposed changes should provide a clearer direction for the property market, benefiting all stakeholders by ensuring consistent and predictable development guidelines.”

It pointed out that it “has consistently advocated for clear and unambiguous policies and this is because clear policies are essential for protecting the investments of property owners whose very same properties often represent their largest lifetime investments.

“Additionally, professionals in our industry rely on well-defined guidelines to provide accurate and reliable advice to the general public.”

The MDA commended the Planning Authority for “taking this step towards greater clarity and certainty in development control policies.

“The MDA fully supports this amendment and looks forward to its implementation.”

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