Planning Watch | Sunday, 07 December 2008

Dwellings in basements

An application to change the use of a semi basement store into a dwelling was submitted to MEPA. The proposal also included a number of internal modifications which were intended to enable the creation of a bathroom within the dwelling. The original building was approved way back in 1986 – a time when policies for development were far less stringent.
The site is in fact located in a committed settlement boundary in Xghara – an area which the Gozo and Comino Local Plan classifies as a Category 1 settlement boundary due to the fact that the area, although located within the Outside Development Zone, features a row of houses in the vicinity of the schemed boundary of Xghara.
The case officer argued by way of primary consideration that the basement could not be rendered habitable, due to the fact that the roof was elevated from pavement level by 1.1 metres, whereas MEPA guidelines require that basement dwellings should be roofed over a minimum distance of 1.4 metres above pavement level. This requirement is clearly expressed in Policy 5.1 of the Policy and Design Guidance DC 2007.
In addition to the above considerations, the case officer made specific reference to Structure Plan Policy TRA 4, which policy specifies that any new development (in this case the creation of a dwelling) would require one car parking space on site. In this case, it was physically impossible to satisfy such a requirement.
The case officer went further to state that if the proposal had to be approved, there would be unacceptable additional on-street car parking and the already existing problems of congestion would be exacerbated.
When the application was referred to the DCC earlier this week, it was approved, provided that applicant makes a contribution of €1,164 (to be used by the Local Council for urban improvement) due to the loss of parking. Otherwise the, DCC did not make reference to the fact that the roof of the basement was not elevated by 1.4 metres from the pavement as regulated by current policy guidelines.

Case Implications
This decision goes to prove that in those occasions where parking cannot be physically accommodated on site due to the existing commitments, new development should not be halted limitedly on these grounds. As a matter of principle, MEPA’s own policy documents already specify that development applications may be approved where car parking cannot be provided on site, because it is either physically impossible or considered undesirable, and the site is not within the area covered by a Commuted Parking Payment Scheme, provided a contribution to the Urban Improvement Fund of €1,164 for each space which is not provided is effected.
The DCC also approved the application notwithstanding the fact that the height between the pavement and the roof of the basement was lower than the stipulated height required by planning policy. This line of action is not tantamount to abuse of power. Contrary to public perception, the DCC may exercise its discretionary powers in terms of Policy E.4 contained in the DC 2007 document, where it is expressly stated that there may be particular circumstances, which are likely to be uncommon, where less than the standard may be acceptable.
In reality, residents living in basements which are roofed over 1.4 metres from external pavement level, (instead of 1.1 metres), are still not likely to enhance their standard of living.
The DCC was therefore correct in its decision.

Robert Musumeci is an architect. His main area of practice focuses on MEPA development applications.


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