Almost a year ago, Parliamentary Secretary Deborah Schembri was chosen by the Prime Minister to embark on a radical administrative reform of the Government Property Division (commonly referred to as the Lands Department). This decision was made in the wake of a number of dubious land transactions which had taken place over previous years.
Six months later, the Lands Authority Act was enacted by Parliament, leading to the establishment of the new Lands Authority composed of an independent board of governors whose role is to succeed in the functions previously assigned to the Commissioner of Land and the minister in as far as the management of public land is concerned.
The leader of the Opposition was twice asked to nominate a sitting MP to represent him on the board but declined such request.
Parliament has enacted another important piece of legislation styled as the Government Lands Act, 2017, establishing formal procedures that should be pursued by the new authority in the acquisition and transfer of public land. This Act brings together no less than five pieces of scattered legislation.
In the process, several outdated provisions were revisited and brought in line with the strategic aims set out in the Lands Authority Act. Other new provisions were also introduced in an equal effort to reinstate public confidence in this context.
The salient ramifications in consequence to this reform include the following.
All external requests (which may vary from a request for an encroachment to an expression of interest to acquire public land) together with the pertinent board decision shall now be available for public inspection.
All decisions taken by the authority need to be adequately motivated in line with the general principles of good administrative behaviour.
It is also possible to appeal all board decisions before the Administrative Review Tribunal, which shall give its decision within six months.
An Internal Audit and Investigations Directorate headed by a chief auditor Officer shall be now set up to interalia scrutinise all transactions exceeding one €100,000.
Aggrieved individuals may now contest eviction orders directly before the Administrative Review Tribunal instead of having to file a warrant of prohibitory injunction followed by a civil court case.
Schedule I of the previous Chapter 268, prescribing the methods by which public property could be transferred was entirely revisited. The allowable methods of transfer are specifically listed in the law so that any transfer in breach of such method is subject to a €5,000 fine and imprisonment.
Any other method of transfer may only be added following a government legal notice which could be contested, within 28 days through a motion tabled in Parliament. It is then up to Parliament to revoke or approve the same.
According to the new legislation, when a difference exists in the value of two lands exchanged between government and a third party, such exchange may no longer take place if the value of the land belonging to government that is to be given in exchange for expropriated land exceeds the value of the said land. Had this been the case in the past, a number of controversial land transfers would not have taken place.
The ‘right of first refusal’ is now given to persons who have been moved or have been asked to move from government property and not yet been given an alternative site.
Financial compensation in regard to expropriated land has been extended to cover moral damages arising from excessive waiting times for such acquisitions.
The State may retain private property for possession and use for a period not exceeding 10 years, after which period there is an obligation to acquire such land by absolute purchase or revert the property to its owners. Until now the government could keep a property indefinitely and in some cases has indeed done so for over 20 years.
Finally, the government wants to ensure that all transactions reflect the true market value. In order for this to be achieved, the new law states that wherever there is the need to establish a market value, an estimate is required to be conducted by an architect who in turn shall highlight the methodology adopted and make reference to comparable transactions together with any legal or planning and factual site restrictions.
But even so, all transactions exceeding €400,000 is required to be supported by a valuation report over the signature of three external architects.
Undoubtedly, the changes brought about by the Parliamentary Secretary mark a new era in the administration of public property. This is yet another example where the current administration has acted promptly after taking cognizance of its own as well as pre-2013 shortcomings.