Planning Emergency

After permitting large building against policies, the Planning Authority boasted of approving “significantly downsized project”

Two legal challenges by NGOs and residents were filed against the permit last week

Things moved fast in the last meeting of the Planning Commission that led to the approval of a block of flats at Tas-Sajtun, which if built would dominate the skyline across a verdant valley with its bulk and breadth.

The mood or tempo during the meeting when the project was approved was distinctly different than in all previous meetings. The decision had been deferred for a year in meeting after meeting, and at one point the Planning Commission seemed to be heading towards refusal when it enunciated three reasons why the proposal was in breach of policies.   

In the meeting before last, the commission members concurred that the entire top floor had to be removed from the proposal and heavier terracing introduced along the breadth of the proposed block.

The architect did introduce heavier terracing, but only removed part of the top floor. Yet the deputy chairperson, Mereille Fsadni, who was chairing the board in the absence of the chairperson, defended the amended architectural drawings despite the failure to remove the entire top floor as had been discussed or instructed in the previous meeting.

In the minutes of that meeting, the commission then attempted to justify the approval by stating that the updated case officer report (this is the report of the Planning Authority on the case) was a “material consideration” in terms of Article 72 (2d) of planning law.

Article 72 (2) lists the criteria for the determination of development applications – criteria include policies and plans and objectors' submissions – with sub-article 2d talking about “any   other   material   consideration,   including surrounding  legal  commitments,  environmental, aesthetic  and  sanitary  considerations,  which  the Planning Board may deem relevant.”

The law intends material consideration to be something rather tangible. In fact, the Court of Appeal has held more than once that Article 72 (2d) cannot be used to justify approval if a proposed development is clearly in breach of planning policies.

That would amount to circumvention of policies.

But that is what the Planning Commission did at Tas-Sajtun: the now-approved five-storey development (plus underground garage) is widely considered to be in breach of GZ-EDGE1. That is a major policy in the Local Plan that limits height to 2 floors and three course basement – and, in a recent case, the planning tribunal interpreted that policy in conjunction with supplementary policies as a height limitation of three floors.

Planning Authority's sponsored post on Facebook - click to enlarge

Yet the Planning Authority did not only deliver permit, it even boasted about it. It launched a promotional campaign on social media in which it spun the approval as good planning, highlighting the fact that the developer had reduced the bulk of the building.

The developer had indeed been compelled by the Planning Commission – which was under pressure by more than a thousand objections and sustained opposition during meetings – to reduce the bulk of the building, a reduction from initial 71 flats to the final 38 flat. And that is largely a people’s win.

Extract from Planning Authority's press statement

But the reduction in magnitude does not mitigate the crucial point: the block in its reduced bulk would still be out of character in the area and still in breach of GZ-EDGE1 policy. Part of the approved block is five-storeys high – and the planning tribunal last December revoked permit for a similar five-storey building on the basis of that same policy.   

So once again the people have to keep fighting: two legal appeals against the planning permit were filed last week by three NGOs and a dozen residents. The appellants have raised a range of issues, including GZ-EDGE1 policy and the accuracy of photomontages, as well as questions surrounding ownership.

Last week this website published an investigation into the application for land title at Tas-Sajtun, which was approved by the Land Registry from one day to the next despite wrong or incorrect information.

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