Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Lack of checks and balances at Mepa

Lack of checks and balances at Mepa

Edward A. Mallia and Marco Cremona made a number of comments and suggestions regarding Mepa's reform (June 26).

A lot is being expected out of this promised reform; expectations from all strata of society whose one and only interest is the protection of the ever dwindling national and natural heritage, both rapidly disappearing.

Mepa is an authority formed of two directorates: the Planning Directorate and the Environment Protection Directorate, which, as has been officially declared, are two different and distinct directorates within one authority, contributing to one decision, taking into account planning and environment protection.

Mepa has a healthy percentage of scarce, motivated and dedicated, academically qualified personnel, who very well know both the national and international obligations of their authority. The crux of the problem are Mepa's boards and committees who take final decisions, and who lag far behind such technical and academic expertise. Very often they tend to by-pass or completely ignore the recommendations of the technical staff, which recommendations sometimes are far above the boards' and committees' grasp. Judging from the number of permits which were publicly scrutinised and criticised, these were all recommended for refusal by the technical staff, but overturned and approved by the Mepa boards or committees. Such permits, among others, include:

The Xagħra l-Ħamra golf course application;

The Ramla l-Ħamra, Gozo, development;

The Safi application for the building of a supermarket;

The Mistra valley disco;

The Baħrija villa development;

The Nadur cemetery in Gozo;

A number of high-rises in Sliema.

When the recommendations of the technical staff are blatantly dismissed and reversed, resulting in such a waste of resources and energy, one must indeed ask what the role of the technical staff is, and the role of the board and committees. In the past when the EPD was still a government department, it had a representative on the Mepa board, who also had a vote. Today with the EPD as part of Mepa, the EPD director is just a spectator, hands tied, without a vote. In some of the above cases, following a public outcry, the political side had to intervene and back-track on such decisions, without any action being taken as if nothing happened, meaning that if it was not for the public and some of the NGOs, the development would still have taken place.

One has also to keep in mind, that besides the lack of technical and academic background of some of the board and committee members, there are some with known political leanings whose only qualification is the extension of their master's voice. It is pertinent to point out that on the Mepa board and most committees, if not all, there is not a single member with environmental credentials. When such technical recommendations are ignored or reversed, it becomes a political decision, and it is not any more a technical one. One cannot but seriously ask if Mepa is just a smoke screen for political decisions. If it is true that there is going to be a reform of this unbridled authority decision-making-machinery, the above has to be the main issue addressed.

Another convenient loophole is the issue of appeals. It is true that on paper, the public can appeal, but it is also true that until the appeal is concluded the applicant can carry on with his works. One can mention the appeal that was lodged against the pulling down of a particular historic building, and the building of the Nadur cemetery in Gozo. The construction of both projects carried on regardless, to finalisation in one case, and the appeals were, or still are being deliberated. If the public is not to be taken for a ride, as soon as an appeal is lodged against projects which leave irreversible damage, the works should be immediately stopped until the appeal is concluded.

Without a doubt, the EPD and the PA are not bedfellows at all, and do not see eye to eye. Checks and balances cannot be met and executed. And when a decision is taken by the Mepa board and committees, the EPD is dragged into the decision as if it has approved the project, irrespective of whether it objected or refused. This is very convenient to the Mepa's decision-making-machinery, who would otherwise have to shoulder all the accountability (if such a terminology exists within the Mepa's vocabulary) on their own.

One of the best measures to be taken for Mepa's reform is to completely separate the two directorates once again as was originally planned before the merger of the two became a takeover by the one. Naturally this can be done if the reform is to really benefit the public and the national interest.

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