Mepa split in early 2014 – Michael Farrugia
Mepa will be split in the first quarter of next year, Parliamentary Secretary responsible for planning, Michael Farrugia, reveals in an interview with di-ve.com, adding that the law is ready and the employees have been invited to choose between planning and environment.
Dr Farrugia is no newcomer to politics but a new role since the March general elections has seen him focusing entirely on Mepa reform, a necessary quantum which many consider unachievable.
However, one thing stands out while talking to Dr Farrugia, who is a doctor by profession, and that is the passion he exudes for his new role and the articulate arguments he puts forward. For a second you could be easily fooled into thinking that he is a practicing architect.
Following the latest public consultation launch, this time on ODZ policy, Dr Farrugia talks to di-ve.com on the past seven months and discuss various issues related to policies, planning, development and high rise buildings.
What are your observations on Mepa after taking stock of the situation in the past months?
It was shocking to discover the way Mepa operates and functions especially when I discovered that it had a debt of €28 million when it was supposed to be a commercial entity and at least breaking even.
While in theory Mepa should be breaking even, in practice, the planning section is generating enough revenue to sustain itself. The environment section operates on a budget from the consolidated fund which is clearly not sufficient to cover its costs. The previous government had increased tariffs to cover this deficit but the plan backfired as applications decreased and Mepa’s income deteriorated to an extent that not even the planning section was breaking even.
The bottom line is that we found an anomalous and complex situation with high tariffs and a decreasing number of planning applications, disgruntlement and a loss making operation. Projects of a certain size had fizzled out completely due to the exorbitant tariffs and this worked against attracting investment to Malta.
Thus the first decision was to reverse this situation. We lowered the tariffs across the board and introduced new incentives such as no fees for restoration of buildings in town centres.
Did the lower tariffs attract investment?
Yes, the strategy worked immediately. Suffice to say that in a period of five months, between May and October of this year, the number of applications submitted generated €3 million worth of revenue for Mepa. This is equal to the revenue generated during the same period in 2010, of €3.1 million, just before the tariffs were increased by the previous administration.
What type of applications where submitted?
The applications were various but certainly not for maisonettes or apartments but for projects of a certain size and investment. This showed that the previous strategy did not work and certain developments had been temporarily shelved.
Does this mean that we should expect a sudden surge in development, perhaps leading to overdevelopment?
No, certainly not. That is not my intention.
You are also responsible for simplification, at what stage is this?
One are which was simplified concerns the construction of factory premises in industrial areas. We introduced a fast track policy and as long as factories do not exceed a height limitation a full application is no longer required. A development notification order will ensure that a permit is issued within a few weeks.
We do not need to know how a factory is built up inside. We have the absurd situation that the Armed Forces of Malta has to expose all its development plans while the American Embassy at Ta’ Qali only has an outline.
Have you noticed any particular demand for development?
There is a phenomenal demand for office space of which there is simply not enough in Malta. The demand is especially significant in St. Julians, Sliema and Pembroke where the demand significantly exceeds the supply.
How do you intend to cater for this specific demand?
Our plan is to introduce high-rise buildings with large open spaces for the public. We will ensure that developers include a floor to area ratio that that is wide and airy enough to open up the areas between buildings.
Have any areas been earmarked for these high-rise buildings?
Sliema and St Julians are two areas could be suitable areas and perhaps even Marsascala. Without doubt high-rise will not be allowed in areas such as Rabat. Gozo is also completely excluded from high-rise buildings since we intend to preserve its unique character.
Any particular reason for high-rise buildings?
Yes, we want to create landmarks that are easily distinguishable. For example if you are at Mdina you would be able to identify buildings in Sliema or St Julian’s. These landmarks have to have a particular design to make them attractive.
In the past we has the aesthetics board. When Mepa was constituted, aesthetics were no longer a prerequisite and architects were reduced to designing rectangles. We intend reversing this and encourage architects to become creative once again with the assistance of a board that will actually suggest improvements to their design. This will be voluntary and architects are free to take on board any suggestions made.
Have you discussed this with architects?
Yes and they are very much in favour of introducing aesthetics and are excited about it. Aesthetics improvement will be voluntary and not imposed and they are willing to embrace the idea of creating particular buildings that stand out. I don’t wish to see any more buildings with eight floors of blank wall.
What is your relationship with developers?
Sometimes I agree with developers and sometimes I am in outright disagreement. I can assure you that not all their requests are entertained and our ideas are not always appreciated by developers.
We tend to agree in principle but not in the detail and this is currently the case on the floor to area ratio. The ratio we are requesting for high-rise buildings differs significantly from what developers are willing to consider. On the other end of the spectrum, NGOs don’t agree with our plans for high rise buildings.
Won’t government be perceived as imposing policies in this way?
No, the policy will take into consideration all the parameters and options. This is a government which listens, evaluates, decides and implements.
Labour’s electoral manifesto promised to split Mepa, when do you envisage this will happen?
We are at an advanced stage of the process and the split should be effected in the first quarter of next year. The draft law for planning is ready from my end but all depends on Parliamentary business. The split can happen in the beginning of next year after the law is presented in Parliament.
We already have the basis on how the work will be split. Moreover, all branches which are in some way are related to heritage will fall under the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage.
What about the employees?
Discussions with Unions have already been held and employees have been invited to choose whether they wish to remain in their respective planning or environment section. They have also been given the opportunity to move to planning or environment.
Should we expect more of the same or perhaps even more bureaucracy from two separate authorities?
We envisage that the Environment and Resources Authority will set policies related to environment to guide the Planning Authority when environment issues crop up. A case in point is the ODZ policy which was launched a few days ago for public consultation.
You have launched a raft of policy revisions, what is the reason?
We have policies that are so bureaucratic that no application can ever be successful. We want policies to be practical, realistic and reflect the present circumstances. A case in point is the policy for shooting ranges. Currently a shooting range can hardly be granted a permit due to an anomalous situation. Thus we involved the Police to ensure that firearms are stored securely at the shooting range to avoid at all costs that weapons are carried to and from the shooting range.
There were instances in the past were one authority overruled another on certain applications. How will this be rectified?
Ta hagrat is a recent case wherein the application went before an EPC board which in turn sent a query to the heritage superintendence which found no objection. After some tweaking to the plans, the EPC accepted to revoke the refusal issued by MEPA.
I cannot revoke the permit but NGOs or individuals can lodge an appeal. I am there to set the policy and ensure that matters proceed as intended. I set the objectives and Mepa should work within those parameters.
Are you entirely in agreement with the ODZ policy published this week?
The ODZ policy was drafted by MEPA not government. The government requested that certain aspects are revised in the policy.
Nevertheless, it is a policy which should clarify many ‘grey’ areas. For example we had a request for a health care facility in an ODZ area. We felt that the building was far too large for the care services proposed. Besides we wondered why a care facility required a box room and why all rooms had an ensuite bathroom. This made us think that should the business fail the building could be easily converted into a villa and eventually the application was refused outright.
Another issue is the significant amount of requests for stables. Under the new ODZ policy we will grant permits for stables as long as these are of wooden construction. Should the stables be no longer required they can be dismantled and the area returned to its original state.
You recently launched an expression of interest for the restoration of a few government properties which are presently in a derelict state. What was the interest so far?
In the first two weeks, 80 people requested a copy of the expression of interest document. We envisage that by the second week of December we will receive a significant number of submissions.