07 AUGUST 2002

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Malta’s planning challenge

Marika Azzopardi speaks to Malta Environment and Planning Authority Chairman Andrew Calleja about the duties the newly-formed Authority is tasked with, rent laws, project approval delays and environmental abuse

The Malta Environment and Planning Authority and the decisions it takes seem to be continuously under scrutiny given the delicacy and importance of its mission statement. As such, MEPA undoubtedly needs strong leadership and its chairman, Andrew Calleja, is up to the challenge, which is why he took up the position in the first place.

The challenge was obvious from the outset as Mr Calleja, in his post at MEPA since last October, explains, "I took up this appointment as a challenge. Initially, my one preoccupation was that since I am not an architect, I might not be up to scratch in all that is entailed in being chairman here, since my background is mainly in IT.

"Eventually I armed myself with the necessary backup. I would take hoards of papers, documents and literature back home to read through and mull over. I literally undertook a crash course by reading all available documentation possible in preparation for the tasks ahead."

As the new Authority has stemmed from the merging of the Environment Ministry and the Planning Authority, Mr Calleja explains that he was impressed with the wide breadth of operations the Authority handles and the multitude of areas it touches upon.

Questioned about the pressures that he has had to face up to since he took up his post, he admits that since the Environment Protection Act was launched last March, the Authority has found an increase in pressures. "Pressures will always exist, it is unavoidable and people will always write to complain about this or that aspect. The media will also throw its limelight on us, constantly. It is up to us to find a plausible balance in all matters."

The delays in MEPA’s decision-making process has been the bone of contention for many, including politicians, who realise that the economy revolves around development issues. Recently Opposition Leader Alfred Sant had hinted that should certain projects be hampered by MEPA’s delay in decision-making, these decisions should be addressed by parliament itself.

To this the Chairman replies, "There are procedures in place and we are bound to follow them. If any government can propose other legislative measures, there are of course ways and means of changing these set procedures. But for the present, the set process has to be adhered to. As it is it avoids anybody from deciding summarily on any project, which action would totally remove the transparency required in such cases."

Asked for his opinion on why the Planning Authority was once summarily referred to as a monster, Mr Calleja laughs outright and replies, "Well, people who are refused an application will automatically grumble, whilst those whose application is accepted might say the we are good folks through and through." Now, he explains, since legislation has changed, there are set time frames for processing applications.

In fact, time frames cannot be exceeded. He compares this established time frame system to a chess clock. "The Authority will have say six weeks for a determined project. Once one part of the procedure which concerns us is done with, we might need to pause for consultations with say, a private architect or with another government department. The chess clock will go off in that instant, and obviously if delays occur during consultations, the Authority is not to blame."

The new system has actually already reaped tangible benefits. From 4,000 pending cases, the Authority currently has a mere 3,300 at hand. Few, considering that the Authority actually receives about 7,000 applications each year - be they minor or major in nature.

Then again, Mr Calleja points out that the law states that one cannot eliminate a plan before the public can object or react to it. The person to be affected by a proposal may be a resident in a concerned area or a mere observer. Anybody has a right to make a representation.

Referring to the golf course issue, Mr Calleja points out the different nature of proposals being put forth, comparing the Pembroke golf course proposal to that of Rabat. He notes that these cases, although both involving a golf course, are intrinsically different and whilst one proposal might be dynamic, thus requiring a constant re-evaluation, another might be more straightforward in its nature.

Mr Calleja has discovered full well that the biggest challenge facing the Authority is in the environmental arena. He knows that a lot of things have progressed over the past ten years and that changes have been pro-active and efficient along the way.

But being a decision-maker is not easy. "We are constantly walking a tightrope. You ask why some decisions take so long to come through. Well, taking a clear-cut decision is not possible every time. If it were that simple there would not be any need for open debates for instance. These are set up to give space to developers and the general public to help us weigh the pros and cons of any given project."

He points to the fact that there are so many issues concerning even the simplest project and the Authority has to decide on the basis of all these issues. He knows fully well that decisions may vary according to the extent of the development involved. "Our responsibility is to be aware of all the impacts and to take the required time to investigate before being in a position to make a viable decision."

The interview leads to the inevitable issue of rent laws, the mention of which immediately spurs Mr Calleja to comment that anything done in this regard should be encouraged. "Should a plausible solution be found for the present situation, we would be the first to applaud the government. Frankly speaking, the utilisation of empty dwellings would go a long way towards diminishing the constant request for new development."

This is even more pertinent since statistics claim that empty dwellings hover around the 30,000 mark. He points out that action would reduce the continuous sprawl threatening the Islands and suggests incentives to regenerate certain areas plus legislation which would help channel investment towards the rehabilitation of old abandoned buildings.

The topic of quarrying also presents itself for discussion and the Chairman confirms that no permits for new quarries have been issued and that only extensions to present established quarries can be granted. The Authority has established that no new quarries are planned for the next five years, whilst 10 quarries are licensed to receive construction material which would otherwise have been dumped in Maghtab.

"One has to look back in history to see how this area has developed. From a point in time when quarry workers just worked with a pick-axe and a donkey to cut stone and required a mere license issued by the police to quarry their own land, we have a reached a time when technical improvements are constantly urging us to catch up with what is actually happening. And we have to keep a constant vigilant eye on our very limited resources."

He refers to the many complaints that are lodged in, regarding operations in quarries. "One has to understand that quarries are dynamic places and we cannot stop them functioning. We can only mitigate."

While complaints revolve around infringements of pre-set conditions, he notes that many times the complaint may involve excessive dust which needs to be watered down. "Most quarry owners do follow suit and carry out the exercise required to keep the dust at bay. But once another loaded truck passes through the quarry’s entrance, things got back to square one and it is not so simple to keep such a situation constantly in pristine condition."

Mr Calleja notes that one cannot visit a butcher without seeing blood and the same may be said of quarries. "No quarry is free from dust. We monitor activities and request a number of conditions such as clean approaches and watering down of truck tyres, the keeping of aggregate bins and adequate dust traps."

Mr Calleja adds that an independent consultancy agency has been commissioned to study acoustic levels being emitted by building sites, while noise levels involving explosives have already been established. Explosive blasts are actually monitored by the Authority through a contract requisite.


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Editor: Saviour Balzan
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