INTERVIEW IN THE MALTA INDEPENDENT – 3rd AUGUST 2015
The Mepa demerger – the separating of the planning and environmental functions – could open the floodgates to even more disastrous planning decisions, according to leading environmentalist PETRA CARUANA DINGLI.
The former Mepa Environment Protection Director and Din l-Art Helwa Council member, speaking in her personal capacity, also tells Neil Camilleri that, despite their request, developers have no place on the planning board.
What is your general opinion of the Mepa demerger? Do you think the Authority is better off as it is now? We have been talking about the need for reform for ages….
There is no doubt that people are not happy with Mepa as it is, but now they are worried that instead of providing more environmental protection, the demerger will open the flood-gates to even more disastrous planning decisions. It may also require increased administrative resources.
As the demerger was an electoral promise, the need for a thorough analysis before taking a final decision to split the Authority, including potential benefits, disadvantages, costs and regulatory impact, was disregarded. This should have been carried out, and presented to the public, in the early stages. The full implications of the new regulations are therefore unclear.
The demerger is a costly and difficult process. The government originally projected that it would be completed by the end of 2013. Two-and-a-half years after the election, the split has still not been achieved, which indicates that the complexities of this move were not fully appreciated at the time. Apart from any potential advantages, possible pitfalls have also emerged.
In this small and over-developed country, land use is one of the main environmental pressures. In my view, it is a mistake to view planning and the environment as two separate spheres, as they should be tackled holistically. Whatever structure is adopted, a good planning authority must have environmental expertise at the heart of its policies and decision-making.
What are your main concerns?
The new Planning Authority seems to be divesting itself of all environmental responsibility. I think this is misguided, as decisions on land use are ultimately environmental decisions as well.
Another concern is that, in the new planning structure, excessive powers will be given to the new executive chairman of the Planning Authority, without adequate checks and balances.
Transparency is also likely to suffer. For example, the government intends to allow anonymous submissions which will hide vested interests. The information on individual cases available to the public is being limited, and action plans will no longer need to identify which land is public.
The government is insisting that the environment will be given greater importance because the Environment Directorate is being elevated to an authority. Do you agree?
The existing Environment Directorate at Mepa has many functions, including air quality, biodiversity, water, waste and noise emissions from industry, the management of protected areas and environmental impact assessments. Many of these are linked to EU obligations.
It is fine to carry out these functions within a separate structure, but it is not clear how this will provide any additional strength. It largely depends on the resources that the government will allocate to the new Authority. Will there be increased funding for protected areas, air monitoring, waste regulation, or to engage more trained staff, for example, or will it basically be the same thing but under a different roof? In which case, why split it up in the first place? In the processing of ordinary development applications, the involvement of environmental expertise is likely to decrease rather than improve, and this alone is a clear point of concern.
The Environment Authority – presumably its director – will have a vote on the Planning Board, which at face value seems like a good thing. However, in practice I think it is problematic. Planning applications, especially major projects which are subject to environmental impact assessments, will involve the Environment Authority at the processing stage. This means that the Environment Authority will influence the recommendation to the Planning Board as to accept or refuse an application. How can it then also vote on the same recommendation? The Environment Authority will also have the right to appeal against the decisions of the same Board of which it will form part.
eNGOs will be represented on the Planning Board and will not have to be registered as objectors in order to appeal. To people who are not well-versed on the subject, this sounds good. Are these not positive points?
In reality, the involvement of e-NGOs in the new Planning Authority is going to decrease. Today, e-NGOs are represented on the main Board which oversees all the functions of Mepa, including policies and administration, but in the new set-up they will only be represented on a new Planning Board focusing on major applications. The information on planning applications available to the public will also be more restricted.
While the right of e-NGOs to appeal is positive, any system placing too much emphasis on appeals will be lop-sided and dysfunctional. Appeals are a costly measure of last resort that e-NGOs cannot easily handle with their limited resources, and are certainly not the lynchpin of the regular system.
It is also mistaken to promote appeals by the Environment Authority, or any other Authority, as some great advance in the planning system. Again, the right to appeal is positive, but in practice such an appeal should be a very exceptional occurrence, as the Planning Board should not disregard the positions of other Authorities in the first place. If the Transport Authority or the Health Authority says no, then it should be no. The same applies to the Environment Authority. If their views are disregarded by the Planning Board, then what kind of authorities will they be in the first place? The idea of different government authorities needing to confront each other and fight out their positions at a tribunal seems bizarre, to say the least.
In any case, will the tribunals have adequate environmental, health or transport expertise to review cases from a holistic perspective, or will they just follow a narrow legalistic analysis of the permit in terms of planning law and policies?
What do you think of the fact that independent members on the board are chosen by the Minister, and that the parties will still have a representative on the board?
The system whereby the Minister or Prime Minister chooses the Board should be reviewed, for example, by involving the Parliamentary Committee for the Environment and Development in the selection process.
Members of Parliament should monitor the government executive and hold it accountable. They should be our watchdogs and should therefore not participate in any government boards or committees as part of the executive. The current government has appointed its own backbenchers to several government entities, and has even amended the law to enable this. I disagree entirely with this approach. On the other hand, the role of the MPs on the Mepa Board is primarily to monitor and act as watchdogs, so there may be a case for an exception here. If they are removed, however, then I think this should be done in conjunction with a significant increase in the involvement of the parliamentary committee in overseeing the functioning of the Planning Authority. Close monitoring is necessary as our environment is being steadily destroyed by over-development and abuse.
Will the system make it easier for political interference?
In this respect, the powers of the future executive chairman are a concern. Today, the Mepa chairman has a large board of around 15 independent people, including two MPs and an eNGO representative, and can only be dismissed by a parliamentary resolution. The planning, environment and enforcement directorates answer to the CEO, who answers to the board. There is an assumption of autonomy, and a system of checks and balances.
In the new system, the chairman will assume many of the functions of the CEO but will not answer to a large independent board and can be dismissed by the Minister at any time for “a just cause”. In practice, I think this set-up is likely to reduce autonomy.
eNGOs complained about short consultation period but is the consultation period not open until 7 August?
Environmental NGOs complained because the drafts of the new laws were not made available for comment before they were presented in parliament. They requested that the parliamentary debate should take place after consultation. Instead, the government went ahead to debate with consultation still ongoing. As a result there was no real plenary debate but only a series of monologues by government MPs, which seem to have served no purpose whatsoever. The government says it will now take comments from the public on board in the Committee for the Consideration of Bills, which is the very last stage in the process before approval.
It would also have been helpful if the government had published the feedback it received from the public on the initial consultation document presented in April 2014. Now it is not clear whether any suggestions were taken on board or discarded, and everyone has to go over the same ground again. Frankly this whole exercise, together with the recent Strategic Plan, can be used as a case study in future, on how public consultation should not be conducted.
Developers are in favour of the demerger. Is this an indication that it favours development more than the environment?
Let’s put it this way, developers are not likely to favour a demerger which reduces their chances of obtaining permits for more construction. So their positive stance might well indicate that their chances of getting permits are being improved. They are now complaining that it is unfair that environmental NGOs are represented on the Planning Board. They think that, as they are also a voluntary organisation, they should be treated equally. This is nonsense. First of all, there is a difference, accepted internationally, between voluntary organisations that are ‘self-serving’ and non-governmental organisations that are not. Both are perfectly fine but they are not the same thing. ‘Self-serving’ voluntary organisations exist to promote the interests of their members. On the other hand, non-governmental organisations are established to promote some wider cause within the community, such as health, the elderly, gender equality, or environmental protection. Secondly, developers are already present at Mepa board sittings as applicants, with their lawyers and architects. They should not be the decision-makers as well.