Times of Malta, 27th June 2008, by Mark Micallef – The Mepa board yesterday unanimously revoked the outline permit for the controversial outdoor disco in Mistra on the grounds that the decision to approve the project was illegal.
The authority’s environment director Martin Seychell told the board that the Development Control Commission (DCC) which approved the outline permit should have assessed the application against stringent criteria set out in the EU Habitats Directive, given that the land in question is a Natura 2000 candidate.
The mechanism which highlights the need for this special assessment on such protected land is automatic, he said, but the requirement was still ignored by the DCC board. In fact, Mepa director general, Godwin Cassar pointed out that even the case officer, who recommended a refusal, had warned the board that if it intended giving its green light, the application should first go through the screening imposed by the directive. But his recommendation was overruled.
On top of that, Mr Seychell said that the application manifestly failed to meet the criteria set out by the directive for such “ultra-sensitive” land and should have been refused.
The project should also have probably qualified for an environmental impact assessment but, again, the DCC ignored this issue and forged ahead with the approval, Mr Seychell said.
The board was convened specifically to discuss whether to revoke the permit, which was at the centre of a massive controversy in the final days of the election campaign after then Labour leader Alfred Sant alleged that corruption was involved in the way the permit was issued. The land belongs to Nationalist MP Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando.
The board responsible for the decision had resigned in protest after being lambasted by the Audit Officer for issuing the equally infamous permit for the Lidl supermarket in Safi.
Following a police investigation into the Mistra case, the board’s former chairman Philip Azzopardi and his deputy Anthony Mifsud will be arraigned for “private interest in adjudication”, along with George Micallef, a former Malta Tourism Authority consultant who was also implicated in the case.
After the election, the Mepa auditor, Joe Falzon, had issued a damning report on the Mistra case which highlighted all of the arguments made during yesterday’s sitting.
The permit was revoked citing article 39A in the Development Planning Act, the same one used to invalidate the equally controversial permit for the Ramla l-Ħamra development.
The article allows the authority to change or revoke a permit on the grounds of fraud, public safety or “where there is an error on the face of the record which offends the law”, as Mr Seychell put it.
In layman terms, this means that the permit is in breach of the directive, which was transposed into Maltese law in 2006, and which made it mandatory for the DCC to carry out a proper screening of the development’s effect on the land and its surroundings before it is approved.
The developer behind the project, Dominic Micallef, would not comment on the decision when contacted yesterday. Earlier, he had informed the authority that he was no longer interested in the project but the authority still went ahead with the sitting.
The authority’s recently appointed chairman, Austin Walker, said he was informed that other permits had been revoked on the same grounds in the past.
However, the article is very rarely used in this way and could set a precedent for other applications.
In the permit issued to Polidano Brothers for the Lidl supermarket in Safi, in fact, the Chamber of Planners had called for the revocation of the permit on similar grounds but no sitting was convened to consider the matter.
An audit report had concluded that the permit, issued by the same DCC board responsible for the Mistra decision, was “manifestly” against planning policies and that the board had failed to abide by the provisions of the Development Planning Act when it overturned the recommendations of the Planning Directorate without justifying its actions on planning grounds.