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Government insists new ODZ guidance is aimed at aiding farmers The Parliamentary environment and development planning committee this evening continued discussing the ODZ policy and design guidance issued by the Malta Environment and Planning Authority in January 2014. The committee, chaired by Labour MP Marlene Farrugia, analysed the policy which regulates the future use of land in Outside Development Zones (ODZ). Explaining the that the policy would allow the development of residential dwellings of not more than 150 square metres, MEPA’s CEO Johann Buttigieg said that developments which would have an unacceptable adverse impact on the conservation value of any scheduled, protected area of ecological, scientific, landscape, cultural or archaeological value would not be permitted. The committee meeting attracted a big number of MPs, MEPA officials and civil society representatives. New parliamentary secretary for planning Michael Falzon and his predecessor Michael Farrugia were also present. Falzon warned that any further delays in approving the policy could result in the loss of EU funds. However, the committee chairman promptly replied that any loss of funds could not be blamed on the committee, especially when the agricultural policy was still on the drawing board. Marlene Farrugia repeatedly said that the committee had no intention to hinder the farming industry, however it was demanding further information to be able to make an informed judgement and protect the livelihood of farmers and the countryside. Ryan Callus called on MEPA officials to provide further data on the number of existing farms and their size, in order to allow Parliament to analyse the policy properly and decide whether it would have a positive affect or not. In reply, parliamentary secretary for agriculture, Roderick Galdes said that currently there are around 200 farms, including 110 cow farms and 90 pig farms. “Shall we destroy the industry and allow speculators to take over the countryside or do we want to sustain the industry and encourage young farmers to diversify and strengthen their operations?” Galdes said. Following Callus’ intervention, Michael Farrugia told the opposition MP and MEPA board member that he had had ample time to discuss the policy on the authority’s board adding that the MP “should stop wasting time.” “I would have liked to do so, however the documents I requested were never provided,” Callus quipped. “I prefer having new structures constructed within the parameters of farms, rather than extend the footprint of the farms,” MEPA CEO Johann Buttigieg said, dismissing fears that this policy would eat up more land in the countryside. To the contrary, MEPA officials said that allowing farm owners to construct a dwelling, 100 metres away from the farm land, would benefit the agricultural industry. Callus insisted that the new policy did not provide a clear definition of a livestock farmer, as opposed to the current policy which stipulates that livestock farms need to have a minimum of 40 animals. “We are only insisting on this point, because if the new policy is not clear it would open up the possibility of abuse by persons who are not real farmers, to the detriment of genuine farmers,” Callus said. Following a brief alteration with Buttigieg, who insisted that the current policy did not define a livestock farmer, an agricultural department official said that the new ODZ policy and the new agriculture policy had not yet determined the criteria, however he hinted that it would be based on turnover and animal heads. Buttigieg stressed that the new ODZ Policy and Design Guidance is aimed at assisting the agricultural industry and address the existing needs of farmers. A number of these needs stem from the growing number of European and national environmental requirements and obligations affecting land-use and agriculture, the MEPA CEO said. The issue of derelict permitted buildings in the countryside is also addressed which allows for a wider range of permissible uses as long as the visual quality of the countryside is sensitively respected and improved. The policy also promotes the change of use of listed buildings to help in their restoration and upkeeping as long as their historic and/or architectural value is not compromised. Other structures, including new stables, are being directed to make use of materials such as natural timber which make the land easily reversible once the structure is no longer required. Earlier today, MaltaToday reported that government intends removing the blanket ban on the regularisation of development outside development zones (ODZ) and scheduled areas like areas of ecological and scientific importance. This emerged from the consultation document “For an efficient planning system” which was issued for public consultation yesterday. The document is a consultation paper on the proposed split of MEPA into separate environment and planning authorities.