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‘People know just what they voted for’

As the spring hunting season kicked off yesterday, Environment Minister Leo Brincat speaks to Caroline Muscat on the challenges it poses. But it’s only one controversy among several he is facing.

Photo: Matthew MirabelliPhoto: Matthew Mirabelli

He is the first to admit that the planning authority has failed its mission to provide adequate protection for the environment and, in his view, separating the environmental and planning functions of the authority is the way forward.

But the split is controversial, amid fears that planning policies being introduced are dismantling the environmental protection regulations introduced over the years to address rampant development.

Environment Minister Leo Brincat acknowledges these concerns: “Under various governments in the past, there was always the perception that planning ruled at the expense of the environment.”

But he insists things will be different. Once the new Environment and Resources Authority (ERA) becomes operational, it will be equipped with the tools to address development concerns, he says.

“The environment authority will have representation on the board of directors of the planning authority, but beyond that it will also have the moral right to exercise its opinion publicly and I think that the views of an authority will carry much more weight than the views of NGOs.”

He stresses he has full respect for environmental organisations but he believes that an environment authority, that is vocal on concerns and expresses its dissent, will add substance to concerns.

When Mr Brincat was assigned the environment portfolio during the Labour Party’s time in Opposition, many NGOs were suspicious. He came from a finance background, and they questioned his competence to deal with environmental concerns.

Mr Brincat spent the best part of his term in Opposition reaching out to NGOs, to learn from their expertise and to listen to their concerns. Now, he says, the party is in government and he is bound by an electoral mandate – a point he raises frequently when faced with questions on controversial issues.

Still, he insists that the environment remains a priority for government, and he goes to great lengths to explain the functions of the new Environment Authority to be established.

Apart from having a representation on the planning authority board once this is relieved of its environmental obligations, he stresses that the new environment authority will also have the right to contest decisions before a tribunal.

“We are giving a lot of importance to this because of access to justice considerations in the way the tribunal is formulated. Our strong view is that the tribunal should not only have a high degree of autonomy but it should be set up in such a way that it commands the respect of both people who are pro-environment and people from the development lobby.”

He could not answer questions on how the tribunal would be set up, how many members it would have and who would appoint them.

“This is a question of structures at this stage,” Mr Brincat says, although he stressed the need for the board to be independent.

When confronted with the scepticism that exists on the real independence of government-appointed members, Mr Brincat said: “If you have a pseudo-independent tribunal that is lopsided towards the planning side, it will obviously lose its sense of purpose”.

Reassurances that the tribunal would be ‘balanced’, in a context where planning has overruled environmental considerations for a number of years, provides little comfort.

Empowering the environment authority at decision-making level rather than allowing it to appeal to a tribunal would seem to be the preferred route to alleviate development concerns. But when questioned on the power of representation of the ERA on the Mepa planning board, Mr Brincat could not provide an answer.

“We have not set up the exact number of members [on the planning board], but apart from our own membership there will be a statutory representation by the environment NGOs,” he says.

We would be strongly objecting to situations that could arise where the parameters are bypassed

This means that in the consultation period on the Mepa split, the environment authority has been limited to one member while the number of members from the planning side is as yet not determined.

As things stand under Mepa, environmental organisations already have a vote on the planning board. The main difference being considered is that the NGO representative would actually be chosen by environmental organisations rather than government.

But there are additional considerations, he insists: “In addition to the representation of the ERA and NGOs, we are going to give full voting rights to the local councils on mega projects. These are three added powers that don’t exist so far.”

Questions remain on whether this can be interpreted as a strengthening of the new environment authority’s capability to address the impacts of rampant development.

The consultation document on the planning side of the Mepa split states that the planning board would retain the power to overrule any recommendation from all internal and external consultants without distinction, provided that all decisions are adequately motivated and based on sound planning arguments.

Mr Brincat insists the Mepa split is still a step forward: “I’m not saying the model is going to be perfect... but to the best of my judgement, this demerger will actually be perceived to have worked or failed... when we actually get to the stage of the implementation”.

Pressed for a timeframe on when the ERA will be operational, Mr Brincat says summer is a possibility but he does not commit to a deadline. Even though the consultation process will come to an end soon, he says feedback will still be welcomed: “We don’t want to steamroll this in... we will tweak and adjust as necessary”.

He admits this may seem as “a state of limbo for people”, especially as Mepa moves ahead with amendments to policies that relax the environmental protection regulations built into planning policy over the years.

But he insists he cannot be criticised for that: “Mepa does not fall under my remit at present. That will only happen once the de-merger actually occurs.”

He admits the environment ministry was not consulted on the revised policy for Outside Development Zones (ODZ), which has been lambasted by environmental organisations for encouraging more construction in the countryside.

“On the ODZ, we have not been consulted as a ministry… but we have our own views on ODZ, even from an agricultural aspect,” says Mr Brincat.

He makes it clear the ministry will not be adopting a “fundamentalist” position on development in the countryside as long as it addresses genuine farmers’ concerns, and that the projects are truly sustainable agritourism ventures.

The new plan on ODZ development only makes two token references to the need for consultation with the Environment Authority, yet Mr Brincat insists his ministry will not tolerate the exploitation of the countryside:

“We would be strongly objecting to situations that could arise where the parameters are bypassed to accommodate people whose only interest is to exploit the countryside for commercial purposes”.

He says he will prove this with time: “The best yardstick is not just to judge us by the level of rhetoric… but to see how things will work out when the implementation process begins. This is not a question of promoting green credentials – it’s also a credibility test.”

Until that happens, Mepa remains without an environment director to at least challenge the policies being rushed in on the planning side. It was Mr Brincat’s decision to leave that role vacant.

“I shoulder full political responsibility for that decision... we had suggestions from Mepa itself to go ahead with this process.

“At one stage, Mepa itself wanted to appoint a director… but I didn’t want to find myself in a situation where possibly we could have ended up appointing director of planning number two.

As a believer in freedom of speech, Brian May had every right to comment on this issue

“I wanted to make sure we have a director for the environment in the real sense of the word and at the same time we wanted to avoid the pitfalls of the past,” he says, referring to the issue of gas emissions at Mepa Hexagon House.

“They took the side of government and tried to convince the employees this was not an issue hazardous to their health,” he says.

Since Mepa is not answerable to him at the moment, he believes the new environment director should come in under the new ERA structure.

This is not the only bone of contention he has with Mepa, which he accuses of having too much of a “cosy relationship” with the waste operators it should be regulating.

“Mepa ended up sounding like a lapdog rather than a watchdog. This will have to end.”

The only way it can end is by ensuring there will be actual enforcement, Mr Brincat says. But he cannot delve into the ‘how’ because that matter will remain the responsibility of the planning authority although waste management will fall under the new environment authority.

When faced with the country’s abysmal recycling figures with 87 per cent of waste still going to landfill, he admits waste management is an urgent matter that needs to be addressed or the country will face the question of another incinerator that people will not want in their backyard.

He says he has pushed back pressure from Mepa to build another incinerator dismissing the authority’s claims that it is “inevitable”. And he has shelved plans by the previous administration to build one.

He says he was “shocked” by what he was told in his first briefing on the subject as minister. While telling him incineration was the only way forward for the country’s waste management, there were no studies to back up their claim.

He says the previous administration had already identified a site for the new incinerator, close to the Delimara power station. Due to internal resistance, he says the PN “decided to postpone the issue to 2015”.

Mr Brincat insists incineration remains “an issue of last resort” for a PL government, and the necessary studies for alternatives like the export of waste are under way.

This could help the country avoid the health and environmental risks associated with an incinerator. The real solution, however, has to come from the people.

The ministry is about to embark on an educational campaign on waste separation at source. The public’s cooperation with waste reduction and recycling is essential for the country to achieve waste management targets.

Malta needs to recycle 50 per cent of its waste by 2020. At the moment, the country is managing around 13 per cent.

The reason for this, however, is not only related to public complacency. Mr Brincat describes “a racket” among some waste operators contracted by local councils.

The waste operators give priority to work “on the side” where they collect waste from commercial outlets and mix it together with the domestic waste collected from households. This brings to nothing the efforts to separate waste at home.

Mr Brincat says this is an issue that will be addressed because separation at source is “the core” of the waste management plan.

When talking about his plans for environmental protection under his watch, Mr Brincat hits all the right environmental buzz words. He also says he is receiving support from the administration for the implementation of these projects because the government will deliver on its electoral manifesto. But one of those promises puts Mr Brincat in an awkward situation.

Hunting is a controversial issue Mr Brincat can keep a convenient distance from as it falls under Parliamentary Secretary for Animal Rights Roderick Galdes. This is one of the rare occasions where he speaks on the subject.

As the minister responsible for nature conservation, Mr Brincat has to carry the responsibility for permitting the killing of birds migrating to their breeding grounds every spring. But he has no issue with rubberstamping decisions that allows the party to say it is delivering on its promises.

“It’s in our manifesto. People knew what they were voting for.”

For Mr Brincat, the focus is on regulating the hunting illegalities so as not to land the country in trouble with the EU.

“What we do has to be done with full respect to EU regulations. Definitely there’s no idea on our part of changing things in such a way that we try to go back to the pre-accession situation.”

The spring hunting season started yesterday and will last until the end of the month. This year, the government is even permitting hunting on Sundays and public holidays for the first time in seven years.

“The derogation [on spring hunting] was there. It was not something we invented… enforcement is the key to it all. I think that compared to what enforcement was in the past… we have made important strides forward.”

A legal challenge to spring hunting has been filed in the local courts by Birdlife. In Brussels, 39 MEPs from 11 countries met with the EU Environment Commissioner to suspend any further derogations to allow spring hunting.

While only the hunting of turtle dove and quail are permitted, scores of protected birds also get shot down each season.

This spring each hunter can shoot down only four birds in the whole season. Under-reporting by hunters is a known secret, yet the government recently claimed Malta deploys one of the most elaborate and rigorous hunting bag verification and control regimes in Europe.

In reality it depends on hunters honestly self-reporting their kills. When challenged on whether he believes such a reporting system so obviously open to abuse is credible, Mr Brincat replies that it has been made clear to all hunting organisations that the data being submitted has to be “as accurate as possible. It is not in their interest to risk losing it all,” Mr Brincat says.

When put to him that it is precisely because hunters risk losing their spring hunting privilege that it is in their interest to under-report, Mr Brincat falters.

“No, I’m not so sure,” he says. “Let’s put it this way. I think it would be a big mistake to dismiss all hunters as irresponsible people.”

Yet the illegalities continue to happen, despite harsher fines introduced and additional investment in law enforcement at a cost Mr Brincat could not quantify.

The minister stresses that “we do not intend to go one inch beyond our mandate” which states that hunters should enjoy the same rights as their European counterparts.

This begs the question of why the re-introduction of finch trapping is being considered since this was not included in the Labour Party’s manifesto, and Malta committed in accession agreements with the EU that finch trapping is phased out.

The Parliamentary Secretary under his ministry had said government was looking into “technical loopholes” for finch trapping.

“I am not the one to look for loopholes,” Mr Brincat says. “I think it’s too premature to judge at this stage,” he adds, because a technical and legal team is looking into the issue. “It’s a question of legal interpretation.”

Mr Brincat refuses to join the chorus of disapproval on legendary guitarist Brian May’s comments at a concert last week who urged the audience to vote out spring hunting. He takes a stand that is starkly different from that of Malta Tourism Authority chairman Gavin Gulia who said the Queen guitarist should have stuck to singing.

“As a believer in freedom of speech, Brian May had every right to comment on this issue. Whether it was out of place or not is irrelevant. At the same time, I think everybody else has every right to disagree with Brian May especially if they are not talking about his musical contribution because if anyone disagrees with that he needs to get his head tested.”

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