A new study of data has found evidence of political corruption at the Planning Authority in its issuing of ODZ permits.

Data on every one of the 17,729 ODZ applications from 1993 right through to March 2016, was obtained from the Planning Authority’s website, using a method known as scraping.

The study was authored by Paul Caruana Galizia, from the Department of Economic History, London School of Economics, and Matthew Caruana Galizia, from the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, Washington.

‘Political land corruption: evidence from Malta – the European Union’s smallest Member State’ was published by Cambridge University Press on the day of their mother’s assassination.

A total of 4.1 gigabytes of data was scraped, after the authority rejected one freedom of information request for it and ignored another. The applications range from minor alterations to rural buildings to full-blown developments.

The authors found a high number of ODZ permit applications and a high approval rating, both of which correlated with the electoral cycle.

Demand for ODZ permits likely came through land speculation, they said.

Case officers’ recommendations to refuse an ODZ application were more likely to be overturned by the authority’s board during election periods, the study found.

The fact that the board’s approval of ODZ permits matched the electoral cycle suggested government interference in the authority, the authors surmised.

Prior to 2013, ODZ approvals tended to spike before an election.

The study found that after the 2013 election, the ratio of ODZ permit approvals actually continued to climb.

The implication from the data was that the authority’s board was not independent of the government

They said the patterns in their data consistently showed incumbents approving ODZ permits in the months running up to general elections, in what was termed as an “immediate exchange”.

Competing parties, in this case the Labour Party in 2013, approved ODZ permits in the months succeeding an election, in what was dubbed as a “promise of exchange”.

At one point in 2015, the data shows that every single ODZ application was being approved.

During the run-up to the 2003 election, 40 per cent of case officers’ recommendations to refuse an ODZ permit were turned down. In 2008, this same ratio rose above 35 per cent.

The authors said it was “remarkable” that during these periods, the authority’s board could conflict with case officers on 35-40 per cent of decisions, compared to the usual average of 15 per cent.

In contrast, instances where case officers recommended granting a permit, but the board refused, showed no relationship with the electoral cycle.

This indicated that rather than outright bribery of officials, the issue with the Planning Authority was political corruption, the authors said.

They said the implications from the data was that the authority’s board was not independent of the government.

The study said patterns in the data and the qualitative evidence suggested that permits were granted in exchange for political party support.

Mepa’s split into two separate authorities saw Malta moving in the opposite direction of more independence, they said, as the Environmental Resources Authority had little real influence over decisions by the Planning Authority, which decided on ODZ permits.

The authors pointed towards one of its first decisions being the granting of the 38-storey Town Square permit, despite significant environmental concerns.

More transparency in donations to political parties and politicians would make the exchange of permits for political party support less of a threat, the study says, as well as making data on permit applications more easily available for scrutiny.

The authority also needed to be given more political independence, they said.

In numbers

17,729 ODZ applications since 1993 (till March 2016);
9,194 ODZ applications approved ;
6,310 ODZ applications rejected.

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