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The PN's new green face? | Ryan Callus

The deeds of past Nationalist governments weigh heavily on his criticism of the present government’s pro-development agenda, but Ryan Callus argues he is not here to defend the past.

james
James Debono
23 December 2013, 12:00am


30-year-old engineer Ryan Callus represents the Opposition on the Malta Environment and Planning Authority board, and has been recently appointed as its spokesperson for planning issues. Callus, a newly-elected MP, says he feels burdened by a responsibility for future generations.

"Before taking a decision one has to be fully informed about the issues involved.  Many wrong decisions taken are down to a lack of information," Callus says, who insists with me that the environment deserves priority. "I prefer to tilt the scales in favour of the environment instead of tilting them for development. And that's because it's nearly impossible to redress a wrong decision that harms the environment. It's very difficult to restore the environment to its pristine condition after a development has taken place."

I immediately point out the perception that MEPA is already biased in favour of development, and that this goes back a long time: some of the worst planning decisions, including an outline permit for 990 apartments at Mistra, were taken under the previous Nationalist administration.

Callus does not mince his words. "The project approved in 2008 was excessive in terms of height and number of storeys."

But he also points out that although an outline permit was issued for the controversial Mistra Heights, a number of issues were left unresolved and could only be determined at the final permit stage. One of them was the Traffic Impact Assessment, showing  that the present road cannot cater for present traffic flows, let alone for the additional influx of traffic generated by the mega-project.

Callus says the outline permit had been issued on the understanding that a proposal for a new bypass would be presented by the time of the full development permit. But the project has now been approved with the traffic situation unresolved.

And under the new Labour government, the transport authority had now overturned its former objection in 2008.

"I'm not against more development at Mistra. What I wanted was more time to negotiate new planning parameters for the project. So I presented a motion to further downsize the project," Callus says, but points out that the present board made no efforts to negotiate with the developers to reduce the height of the project.

In fact it was only in November 2012 that the project was scaled down from 990 to 770 apartments. "While the present government constantly takes credit for approving a downsized project, it fails to point out that the downsizing took place under the previous government."

Callus's motion, backed by five MEPA board members, was intended to postpone the decision to enable MEPA negotiate a reduction in the scale of the project. "The point of my motion was to continue the process commenced in 2012 so that discussions with the developers continue with the aim of further reducing the scale of the project."

Wasn't it ironic that while Ryan Callus was arguing in favour of downsizing the project, the PN's president Ann Fenech - in her role as lawyer for Gemxija Crown Holdings - was insisting on the approval of the permit as foreseen in the outline permit in 2008? For her presence created the impression that the PN was trying to serve God and the devil at the same time, with Callus defending the environment and Fenech, the developers. Callus makes it clear that the PN's position in thiscase was that represented by him. "Ann Fenech was there in her role as a lawyer who had been following this case since 2001, well before she entered the political fray... it would not have made sense for Fenech to abandon her clients at the most important stage, the moment when a decision was to be taken."

According to Planning Ombudsman David Pace, contrary to MEPA's claims, the present board was not bound by the 2008 outline permit to issue the full permit, because a number of issues like the traffic situation had not been resolved.

Callus himself contests MEPA's defence to conduct a board meeting in private and take a decision over a request by Din l-Art Helwa to revoke the 2008 permit. While Pace said the planning laws make such a decision illegal, because they have to be made in public, Callus reveals that in August - long before the Mistra decision - the MEPA board had already taken a decision not to discuss the revocation of permits in public, whenever its own planning directorate found no grounds for a revocation. The decision was taken after a vote in which the vast majority of board members outvoted Callus.

"I was very clear on that point, insisting that any vote in favour or against a revocation of permit is effectively a decision, and that the law makes it clear that any decision must be taken in public as specified by the Environment and Planning Act.

I pointed out whoever requests a revocation of a permit has a right to hear the reasons why his request was not being heeded.

"Instead we are now faced with situations like that which happened during the public hearing on Mistra, where the chairman - without even reading the reasons for not acceding the request - simply pronounces that the board's decision."

Callus raised this point on 30 October, when the MEPA board met behind closed doors to discuss Din l-Art Helwa's revocation request. "I argued that the project had a massive impact on the entire country due to its impact on the traffic infrastructure. In view of this I made it clear that any decision related to the permit must be taken in public."

Callus had no option but to leave the room when a vote was taken on whether to revoke the permit or not. "MEPA board members have no option to abstain. They either vote in favour or against. So faced behind a vote taken behind closed doors on an issue which should have been discussed in public, I had no option but to leave the room."

His assessment of MEPA's operations is quite damning. He is very critical of the way Johann Buttigieg was appointed as the new chief executive. Early on in April, parliamentary secretary for planning Michael Farrugia had already described

Buttigieg as his "point of reference in MEPA" and someone he could trust. Only two people applied for the internal call for applications for CEO, for which Buttigieg was eventually chosen.

"The fact that Buttigieg had already been earmarked for the post before a call for applications was even issued defies meritocracy," Callus says, adding that nine persons are presently assisting Buttigieg in his office. "These people were not chosen after an internal call but were directly appointed. They occupy a position of trust. Buttigieg is virtually behaving like a junior minister within MEPA itself. Usually ministers have the power to appoint a secretariat composed of people enjoying their trust."

I point out that while Buttigieg's appointment may well have been a travesty of meritocracy, both the appointment of Ian Stafrace as CEO and Petra Bianchi as director for environmental protection, were both issued in the absence of any call for applications. Callus admits things could have been done in a better way, although he says both persons were highly capable in their jobs, and that Bianchi's appointment was meant to appoint someone from civil society to occupy a strategic role.

"It was clear that in Buttigieg's case everything was pre-arranged. People interested in the post did not even bother applying after the parliamentary secretary had publicly earmarked Buttigieg as his reference point."

So does a disguised direct appointment by the present government justify the direct appointments made in the past?
Callus is quite categorical about the way forward. "I think that all appointments should be made after a public call... this should be done in a transparent way and without any prior commitments to anyone."

Pre-empting my other questions on the PN's questionable record, he makes it clear that he was not here to defend past choices. "I am not here to defend what was done by previous administration. I am sure that we could have done things better even under the previous administration. My role is to look forward and learn from the mistakes we made."

He says the MEPA reform had brought with it a greater sense of meritocracy, amongst them a full-time appeals tribunal - a particularly significant move in view of the board's quasi-judicial role, which has the power of overturning decisions taken by the MEPA board. Callus points out that instead, the present government has directly appointed a new, part-time board which includes Labour candidate (Simon Micallef Stafrace), a private architect, and Freeport chairman (Robert Sersero).

In this way, 740 pending appeals have been transferred from the jurisdiction of MEPA's appeals tribunal, to the new part-time body. "Our intention was to reduce the conflict of interest faced by practicing architects and other professionals on these boards," Callus says. "The present government seems to have other ideas."

But while Callus seems honest in his intentions, it would be difficult for the PN to win the heart of environmentalists after its massive ODZ extension in 2006, and the changes to building heights which changed the fabric of our towns and villages.

"The intention of increasing building heights was a good one. It was meant to reduce the pressures on the countryside by adding one storey more across the board. But looking back one has to recognize that it also changed the face of our villages. Still, what was the alternative?"

Callus is more categorical when asked about the extension of building boundaries in 2006. "We should avoid as much as possible the inclusion of agricultural land in building boundaries."

He is now particularly concerned by the lop-sided priorities of the new government which is changing and devising new plans on ODZ structures, fireworks factories and building heights before changing the structure plan and the local plan.

"A serious government would first revise the local plans and the Structure Plan after adequate public consultation before proceeding to change other policies. Other measures like land reclamation are being carried out in a vacuum in the absence of any studies or policies. The local plan is the most important planning document. It does not make sense to change other policies before changing it. Instead of having a holistic local plan which conditions other policies, these other policies will be conditioning the local plan."

Callus speculates that the reason for this is that the government's priority is to accommodate a number of people to whom it made promises before embarking on a more comprehensive planning exercise. An example is the new policy on ODZ development, which will an intense development of farmland into agritourism developments.

"I hail from Siggiewi, a village of farmers and I appreciate their difficulties. But I also believe that farmers are the custodians and the ultimate defenders of our environment. What worries me is that decisions on this issue will be taken on a case-by-case basis."

But with the new ODZ policy being proposed in the absence of studies to establish any demand for such developments, Callus denounces the absence of a Strategic Impact Assessment, an EU requirement for any plan with an impact on the environment. "Such a study is important not simply because it is a legal requirement but because it would helped us determine the best uses of agricultural land. This would have helped us adapt our policies to real needs."

Another dangerous policy is the abolition of the two-storey limit for countryside dwellings. "Can you imagine walking in the countryside and being faced with three or four storey developments?" Callus asks.

He says he is also concerned by the creation of an ad hoc committee directly appointed by the government, to issue a preliminary permit before a fireworks factory application is assessed by MEPA. He points out that the policy does not even refer to the composition of the board. "Shouldn't we specify that such a board should include representatives of the police, the civil protection department and other experts in the field instead of leaving up everything to the minister?"

And on a new policy on building heights, Callus criticises the lack of any maps that clearly delineate which areas are being deemed suitable for high-rise development.  He points out that the policy refers to Tigné, but the border between Tigné and Sliema is not determined, and expresses reservations on the inclusion of Pembroke as one of the sites for high buildings. "Is this being done to increase the value of the PL's property in Pembroke?" he asks, in a reference to the derelict Australia Hall which was until recently about to be reclaimed by the government before Labour stopped a requisition case filed in the courts by the previous administration.

When I point out that Michael Farrugia has already stated that the Pembroke area does not border on Australia Hall, Callus immediately points out that no area is strictly delineated in the plan in which the whole of Pembroke is included. In fact a star on the whole of Pembroke only indicates the area.

He says another loophole is that the policy fails to specify whether open spaces that must be included for any tall building, will be public or not. "The trend is to leave many loopholes and discretionary powers which could be open to abuse and arbitrary decisions," Callus says.

Back in September, as a MEPA board member, Callus voted against the decision to allow Enemalta to continue using heavy fuel oil (HFO) at the Delimara power station, despite a commitment by Labour back in 2012 to switch immediately to diesel before its shift to natural gas. Wasn't it ironic that a representative of a party which in government took the decision to operate the power station on HFO, now objects to extending its use for the next two years?

"I made it very clear that I was voting against the extension of the permit to use HFO, not because there is a threat to people's health from the present plant, but because as a representative of the people I could not vote against a solemn political commitment made by the Labour Party in opposition."

Callus refers to the PL's statement issued in December 2011, which stated that the Delimara extension should immediately shift to gasoil diesel before being converted to natural gas. He says that throughout the electoral campaign, Labour constantly referred to the power station as a cancer factory.

"People living in the power station's environs were alarmed by these declarations. People were even afraid of allowing their children to play in the streets because of this scaremongering.... How can you than seek an extension for the use of HFO for another two years after causing so much alarm?"  
james
James Debono is MaltaToday's chief reporter on environment, planning and land use issues, ...
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he he he min daqshekk hemm hafna mil PN green imma litteralment (Hdura)...ibda min Xmun Busullotti.
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Raymond Mintoff
How stupid can the PN get, not only does it have its knickers in a twist but don't know if its coming or going. It is funny simply to realise that on one hand PN wants to look green and tree hugging good, while on the other hand accepts a donation of €23,000 from Dr Comidini who happens to be the Mistra developer's' lawyer. PN thinks that serving two masters is possible.
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"I prefer to tilt the scales in favour of the environment instead of tilting them for development. What exactly did you do when your friend scerri built his villa in the valley or you did not have scales then?. You are more of the same full of bulls shit.