'Mepa is there to serve the public'
Resource Minister George Pullicino yesterday called on Mepa officials and employees to understand that they were there to serve the public in the best interests of the common good for sustainable development and healthy environment.
Speaking during the debate on the Mepa reform, he said that sustainable development did not mean that economic development was to be excluded.
In a blow-by-blow account, Mr Pullicino answered opposition criticism on various points raised during the eight-sitting debate.
He said that it was always a nationalist administration that had provided Mepa with good direction, ensuring that it became more accountable, fostered transparency, reduced bureaucracy and ensured better enforcement.
Mr Pullicino criticised Labour for raising issues of accountability and transparency while in opposition, but when in government doing nothing to ensure that Mepa would become more accountable and its procedures more transparent.
He contradicted Leo Brincat who had said that the current Mepa reform was continuing to build on the work that had already been implemented by the Labour Party in 1997. He said the PL had, in the years in which it was in government, actually reduced the public's access to Mepa documents. It was only the current government which had provided the people with access, even to environment impact assessments.
He noted that three amendments that were integrated in the Bill had received Cabinet approval in 2007. These were the removal of illegal structures in ODZs before the exhaustion of procedures, the sanctioning of illegal structures in ODZs, and that the Appeals Board could suspend permits for development in ODZ, urban conservation areas or on scheduled buildings.
Mr Pullicino said he had asked the Prime Minister not to include Mepa in his ministerial portfolio after the election, after he had been responsible for it for 10 years during which he had also been called to safeguard it even though he disagreed with its decisions.
Mepa had brought about a radical change in development, but had failed to win the fight against wrong perceptions that were developed over the years.
He said that between March 2007 and March 2008 Mepa had only issued 1,066 permits in ODZs. Of these, 458 had been for advertising and related issues, 318 permits related to agriculture including the building of storage spaces for agricultural machinery, and just 169 for dwellings. Furthermore, these 169 permits included permits for conversions carried out in already-existing structures.
Mr Pullicino disagreed with the perception that more cases had been determined and more permits had been issued by Mepa boards in the months before the general elections. While an average of 611 decisions per month had been taken in 2006, in 2007 the average number of decisions had been 559. In January and February just before the March elections, only about 516 decisions a month had been taken.
Mepa boards should exercise their discretion, including overturning recommendations made by Mepa officials, because this enhanced the process of checks and balances. Mepa boards were not there to act as rubber stamps but to consider each file in detail.
Even Architect Joe Falzon, when DCC chairman, together with the other members of the commission, had overturned the recommendations made by Mepa officers and occasionally issued permits in ODZ. But this did not mean there was any collusion with the applicants, or that there was cause for investigation. He stated that he had confidence in Mr Falzon, and it was he who had proposed him for office.
Another wrong perception that he had addressed related to the 2006 rationalisation, when the opposition had alleged that Mepa had to dance to the tune played by the Gonzi Cabinet and that this exercise was to benefit a chosen few. This allegation had been made by Leo Brincat on the basis of a memo that had been presented for Cabinet's approval by Mr Pullicino himself.
The memo contained the criteria on which a property could be considered for insertion in the development zones, and when this memo was approved, the representatives of the opposition had not raised any objections.
The minister reiterated that this was no exercise to obtain votes, because only 10 per cent had been accepted for insertion in the development zone. He insisted that when this process was discussed at House committee level the opposition committee members had effectively spoken in favour of the inclusion of greater areas of land within a development zone than the area proposed by them for exclusion.
Reference was also made to a parliamentary question by Ninu Zammit (PN) in November 1986 to then Public Works Minister Lorry Sant, in which he had asked which lands had been inserted in development zones in the previous 12 years. Mr Pullicino said this question had remained unanswered, and he challenged the opposition to publish data which it presented as facts.
Concluding, Mr Pullicino appealed to the management of Mepa to be more efficient and ensure that employees pulled the same rope. He also encouraged Parliamentary Secretary Mario de Marco to push the amendments forward so as to continue to build a good system of governance and forward planning.