Editorial | Wednesday, 30 April 2008

The environmental deficit

The Today Public Policy Institute‘s (TPPI) report on the environmental deficit makes reverting reading.The publication on MEPA’s shortcomings and constructively suggests improvements that will make the institution more accountable to the ordinary citizen, while being in a better position to promote sustainable development.
The report is extremely fair in recognising the substantial progress brought about with the setting up of the institution and the sense of abuse and disorder that it did away with when all permits in years gone by were simply at the discretion of the minister with full powers to run roughshod over all the pleas that the green lobby was crying out for. MEPA in all fairness has put an end to all this.
The report goes into great detail on how MEPA suffers from a perception that it is strong with the weak and weak with the strong with the consequence that developments of great magnitude seem to get clearance at a faster pace than ordinary small applications. It would appear that the institution is putting far too many resources around the big projects and far too few around the smaller ones where an immediate nod or refusal would expedite a good 60 per cent of the applications. It calls for a fast track process certainly with regards to the smaller applications that are often bogged down for years.
The central theme of this report drawn up after the author had the opportunity to talk to all the main players involved is that a firewall needs to be built between the politician and the institution. This indeed would amount to a culture change for the whole operation of the regulatory body, which is infested with political involvement right down the line starting with the very board of the regulatory body, allowing for a presence of the political parties and excluding almost totally a presence of civil society. Also under the microscope is the outside development zone regime which supposedly sanctions and protects the law governing planning and development but finds itself very often breached in the name of development, making it anything but sustainable. The report also calls for a solution to the numerous vacant properties, often left in a pitiful state to the detriment of the general environment, as they are engulfed in legal cases or simply left unoccupied capriciously awaiting appreciation.
The report, authored by Martin Scicluna, includes a controversial suggestion that the position of the chief executive and the chairman be amalgamated into the same person with full power to run the institution supported by a board, which includes civil society. This suggestion marrying the policy maker with the executive of the institution is bound to raise eyebrows and controversy since the very essence of the report is to get government to look at the institution and to carry out a root and branch reform in the name of getting it to work more efficiently and to be run in a more transparent manner.
The position of architects on MEPA boards is also questioned with the potential for conflicts of interest that this could arise, since more often than not the same architects sitting on boards have their own application up for consideration before the same board. This all too often creates a perception of a network festering in the professional interest, which needs to be looked into if the transparency standards are to be achieved. Having said this the report is very careful not to tar all architects with the same brush, since the dedication of a good number of architects has indeed upgraded standards.
During a business breakfast organized by this newspaper, the auditor of MEPA gave a whole list of limitations at his disposal for carrying out a proper professional job since his staff, his office and his tools are all too limited to expeditiously keep a check on the workings of this institution. It is our belief that if the Prime Minister now captaining this institution really means business he must start by beefing up the resources at the auditor’s disposal to ensure that abusive approvals will be corrected immediately. The MEPA auditor, who seems extremely dedicated to his remit, is frustrated most especially due to his belief that there is not the necessary political will to carry out effective enforcement and for all the talk it is now time to walk the walk.
We appreciate only too well the risk the Prime Minister has taken when captaining MEPA, a risk that contributed much to his electoral victory. Now is the time to see if concrete changes will take place. This report, not commissioned by government, is the result of voluntary work carried out by an institution made up of top notch professionals offering the Prime Minister a golden opportunity to look at the workings of MEPA to date and just how the institution can be fine tuned, not just to achieve sustainable development, but especially to have a better quality of life for us all in the name of a truly European country working for the common good. We strongly advise the Prime Minister to implement many of its suggestions. The think tank deserves much praise and our full admiration.

30 April 2008

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