Twelve-point plan to protect agriculture land offers hope, enforcement of laws would be immediate solution

Planning policies and decisions are large contributor to rural land speculation and threats to farmland

Farmers worried about losing their leased fields have been given a dose of hope, a twelve-point plan and legal tweakings launched with much fanfare two weeks ago by the Justice and Agriculture Ministers.

But the twelve-point plan will add yet another authority, like the Lands Authority and the Planning Authority, that will make decision-making more fragmented and not necessarily more effective.   

The legal tweakings have the aim of stalling the eviction of farmers from leased land that is then sold at high prices to people who seek recreational pads in the countryside. The twelve-point plan has the larger aim of protecting the rural landscape, saving agriculture as a socio-economic activity, and maintaining a measure of food security – Malta already imports around four-fifths of its food.

This is largely predicated on making a distinction between “active farmers” and “hobby farmers”, and then limiting access to agricultural land to “genuine farmers”.

An authority would be set up to give flesh to the new policies, employing a range of incentives and disincentives.

One idea is for the authority to buy land that it would then lease to farmers. Another is to tax agricultural land that is not cultivated.

But will this change much on the ground? Consider that much land that now lies uncultivated used to be cultivated by part-time farmers who used to potter in their fields on afternoons and weekends outside work hours, growing their own vegetable and, in some instances, selling excess produce.  

These part-time farmers have diminished due to changes in lifestyle and priorities, and are the larger reason for the abandonment of agricultural land.

Abandoned fields turn colourful by flowers of cape sorrel and poppy (Image copyright: Daniel Cilia)

Much of this land is already fragmented and marginal – hence unlikely to be attractive to commercially minded farmers who might benefit from measures in the twelve-point plan.

Hence the starting point of a plan has to be to formulate one set of policies for commercial farmers and another for hobby farmers – and acknowledge that both are custodians of agricultural traditions and the rural landscape.

It also has to be accepted that number of commercial farmers engaged in farming are unlikely to expand due to various limiting factors, including the topography and economic conditions of farming.  

This means that it is part-time farmers – we can equally call them recreational farmers – that could potentially take over much of the land that has been abandoned in recent decades. As such, such farmers should be encouraged, and the growth of interest in countryside plots of recent years can be as good thing.

And instead of getting lost in differentiating between labels – whether active, hobby or genuine farmers – we should instead focus on the problem we have at hand: the transformation of plots for recreational farming into a patchwork of fields webbed with regimental walls – connected to roads – and having rooms and water reservoirs and stables within.  

A problem of planning

In other words, it’s a largely problem of planning – and the problem of planning is the Planning Authority.

The Planning Authority has always been a problem, but it became a bigger problem in 2015 and 2016 when the government dismantled much controls and drafted new rural development policies that made it easier for people to build in the countryside.

The twelve-point plan concedes this, and one of its points seeks to protect agricultural land from development, “to counter speculation and loss of agricultural land.” Then we get this: “We are proposing the stricter protection systems that make it more difficult to change the use where this is not permissible as per current planning policies.”

The ‘current planning policies’, published in 2015, made it easier to get permit to develop swimming pools beyond the development zones, as well as rooms and stables and other constructions in the countryside.

Fields that are accessible by road and have rooms fetch high prices - click to enlarge

This has led to a proliferation of stables and paddocks, rooms, as well as ubiquitous underwater reservoirs with above-ground “pump rooms”. The planning policies also made it possible to change defunct farms into villas, and to have villas rise from buildings that had been reduced into ruins.

And it’s precisely these permissible planning policies that have fostered “speculation” in the countryside and contributed to a large extent to the rise in the price of agricultural land.

Moreover, even in cases where developments are incompatible with present policies, the Planning Commission many times still delivers permit, especially after the consultative Agriculture Advisory Committee (AAC) delivers a favourable box-ticking assessment.

Let’s take an example of one case investigated by this website, in which a road was constructed illegally to provide access to a cluster of plots sold to recreational farmers. The Planning Commission refused permit to sanction the dirt road, but then it approved a wall in one of the plots along a part of the road. In that case, the case officer twice “reiterated” that since the road was refused permit, then granting permit to the wall and the gate would serve to “formalize” the works. After all, there is something contradictory about refusing permit for a road, but then granting permit for wall and gate running along part of that road, which wall and gate only became necessary because of the construction of the road in the first place. Yet the Planning Commission delivered permit after the applicant removed all mention of, or reference to, the dirt road from the application.

Fix existing authorities, enforce law

Before we create another authority, it would be good to fix the existent authorities. That could start with tweaking planning policies for rural areas – to close the loopholes that have fostered speculation of rural land – and also ensure that the Planning Authority then actually adheres to planning policy, and take direct action to remove or demolish illegal developments.  

Then we could move to the Lands Authority, and ensure that it stops leasing government fields to hunters and others who plant alien trees in them, and instead leases government land only to ‘genuine farmers’, including hobby genuine farmers.

We could also then move on to the Central Authority, which administers EU rural funds. Malta got €129 million in rural funds in the last 5-year cycle, yet the bulk of it was used to construct concrete roads in the countryside and build faux rubble walls by councils and government entities along country roads. That money could instead have been exclusively used to fund agri-environment projects.

And then finally we could make use of the Fertile Soil (Preservation) Act, which is enforced by the Agricultural Department. It’s a law that, if rigorously enforced, would thwart much works taking place in fields being remodelled for the recreational pads in the countryside. It would also counter rooms and other constructions build illegally. But the law has to be amended to be given the power of criminal sanction – and then the Agricultural Department has to find the will to rigorously enforce it.

Extract from Soil Preservation Act - click to enlarge

We might find out that these measures – to fix the entities we already have, to start enforcing laws – would go a long way to solving many of the problems that the government is now trying to fix with a new authority.

Featured image copyright: Daniel Cilia

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