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After the protest… a new ERA?

Protestors, disillusioned by the failure of successive administrations to get the environment right, in Valletta earlier this month.

Protestors, disillusioned by the failure of successive administrations to get the environment right, in Valletta earlier this month.

A mere nine months ago, billboards entreated the Maltese electorate to vote Labour “…so the environment truly becomes a priority”.

The Nationalist administration went down, folding under a wave of general boredom and discontent. Former PN president Victor Scerri’s Baħrija countryside farmhouse embarrassment went with it, only to be exhumed in the media again recently on being sold for a tidy sum.

In Gozo, a cemetery was placed where no cemetery should be, upstream of orchards, caving in to local church politics. Expansion of building zones under a populist 2006 ‘rationalistation’ scheme was another low point on the former government’s record. With the local plans up for review, cynicism is again rampant regarding the fate of areas outside existing development boundaries (ODZ).

A new plan to take over from the ageing Structure Plan is needed to provide an overarching framework. Concerns are being voiced that this process could be foiled by demands from developers to cement new policies in place.

A spatial plan for environment and development (SPED) would be warped and moulded by these policies if they are allowed to squeeze in ahead of the updated national plan, as seems to be the case.

To add to this, the environment directorate is expected to soon be booted out of the Malta Environment and Planning Authority to the Malta Resources Authority, forming a new Environment and Resources Authority (ERA). Mepa’s new chairman (since April) does not sit comfortably with the move.

Meanwhile, government ministries have instructed Mepa to come up with policies to cater for whatever is being demanded by developers. Five policies are undergoing review and five new ones are being introduced in a race to get them approved ahead of the SPED.

At a candid forum held last Monday by the Ramblers Association at Europe House, Valletta, to discuss environmental concerns, Mepa chairman Vince Cassar agreed that, in many cases, things could and should be done better.

A vision of what these islands could become, given good planning, was originally set down in the 1990 Structure Plan. The slippery side of the planning authority writhed its way around this document, adopting some policies and ignoring others as best suited developers, who incidentally provide much of the authority’s bread and butter.

Recommendations for refusal of a permit application from case officers were (and still are) regularly overturned by the planning board. If all efforts fail and a permit is not forthcoming, then an independent review tribunal was (and still is) found to be a useful instrument to reverse decisions. In the Mepa chairman’s own words, the SPED was intended to bring “a shift from traditional land use planning to a spatial approach integrating development and environment protection”.

The environment directorate is expected to soon be booted out of Mepa

Yet, as confirmed by Cassar, the planning authority is talking to all ministries to find out their plans for the future. Once these proposed policies are accepted and adopted, the spatial plan will have to incorporate them before seeking approval by Parliament in 2014. The next step would be for the exisiting local plans to be altered so that they reflect changes regulating certain developments by 2015.

The worry is that enthusiastic developers have been presenting government with a long list of things they would like for Christmas, notably in the domain of sport (race tracks, shooting ranges). Builders of fireworks factories and petrol stations are also lining up to clutter what remains of the countryside.

It appears that anyone with a stone hut in a field may now take up an ‘agro-tourism’ invitation to expand building in green areas, a passport to ODZ development.

Environmentalists fear that the process is ‘upside down’, and much of the spatial plan’s original intention will be lost since the policies currently being pushed through will make the holistic aims of SPED near impossible to achieve.

Michael Zammit Cutajar, a prominent figure in global environment circles, who was present for the discussion, questioned the sequence of events. The Mepa chairman conceded that putting the cart before the horse, so to speak, “could have an impact on the SPED”.

Here follow excerpts from an open exchange between Cassar, Simone Mizzi of Din L-Art Ħelwa, Zammit Cutajar and Joe Agius, president of Ramblers Malta, last week:

Zammit Cutajar: “How will the voice of environment be heard by Mepa… or by someone else (Malta Resources Authority)?”

Cassar: “A representative of the new environment and resources authority will sit on the board of Mepa. I have seen a draft – that is what is being planned, to have a representative of MRA sitting on the planning authority board. Whether that is good enough…”

Mizzi: “Many NGOs have asked what studies have been done to prove that these (five new and five revised) policies are needed. You have received a lot of requests, you are getting instructions from the government. Will you declare how many requests there are to build fuel stations and fireworks factories? Planning is done with studies behind it.”

Cassar: “There has to be the necessary research showing the rationale behind the policy being recommended. Draft policies will be published for a six-week consultation process and we will comment on them as well.”

Mizzi: “Who is going to protect the environment with one vote out of 16? Mepa continues to be a processing farm for development needs.”

Cassar: “There is too much fragmentation. For example, we are processing applications without looking into energy issues. I have sent a memorandum to the parliamentary secretary requesting that as from next year we will require applicants to submit an energy efficiency certificate at design stage as per building regulations. These should have been in place since January 2009. If we don’t start now with our new building stock we will not achieve the EU targets in six years.”

Mizzi: “The environment is finite, building is infinite. There are more outline permits to come. You have not yet decided whether enforcement will remain with Mepa or go to MRA.”

Cassar: “We have to build up our enforcement directorate. We’re planning more enforcement actions in the near future. Before introduction of daily fines there were no fines at all. Sanctioning fees have been in place since November 2012 but some­times there is no proof whether an illegal development pre-dates this ruling. On the other hand, fines that accumulate by the day do seem to act as a deterrent, with a Gozo contractor dismantling rather than paying up for illegal construction. The first ever fine on an ODZ case was on a countryside illegality reported to the Mepa by the Ramblers.”

Agius: “Policing is done only by NGOs!”

Cassar: “Yes, that is where I want to see the directorate being more active. We need our enforcement officers on the ground to go and see developments as soon as the works start. It is no use trying to pull down a five-storey block once built because an internal yard is smaller than on the plan. I would change the name from compliance directorate to enforcement directorate.

“In my opinion, enforcement needs to be tackled with more vigour. Responsibility is now placed squarely on the environment directorate to collect fines (previously the administrative process for this was fragmented). The amount due to Mepa in fines at present is €288,828 from the private sector and close to €4,000 is owed by government.”

Mizzi: “Relaxation of developments outside the development zone is going to pepper the countryside. A small room used to slaughter rabbits can become a 250-square-metre complex one hundred metres away. Then you will have enforcement problems!”

Cassar: “We should be very careful what we allow to be built outside the development zone.”

On the de-merger, Cassar says he would have done it differently:

“I would not have split Mepa but rather bring in the Malta Resources Authority. I believe that in planning issues, all factors have to be taken into consideration.”

The planning directorate is to have specialised officers and new posts are to be set up, including a development management division. The Mepa chairman hopes for “a more efficient and responsible directorate capable of rendering a more focused approach to applications”.

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