Watch me like a hawk | Leo Brincat

The Environment Minister will soon have a brand new authority on his watch, a move that will beef up his ministerial portfolio. But will it have any power in restraining a Planning Authority set free from its environmental arm?

James Debono
19 July 2015, 10:00am
Last updated on 20 July 2015, 8:55am
Environment Minister Leo Brincat. Photo:Ray Attard
Environment Minister Leo Brincat. Photo:Ray Attard
Leo Brincat has a bureaucratic explanation for nearly everything, including keeping the Environment Protection Directorate (EPD) in limbo for two years and discussing a radical overhaul of planning laws during the hot summer.

For the past two years during which 14 new development policies were introduced, the EPD was led by MEPA chairman Vince Cassar while lacking its own director. Cheeky then, for Brincat to criticise the previous administration for treating the environment directorate as ‘the Cinderella in MEPA.’

Brincat assumes full responsibility. And his very revealing reply is that he he refused to appoint a new director because he did not want the forthcoming environment authority to be in any way compromised by any decision under the current set-up.  

“Had I appointed a director for the environment months ago, he or she would have been answerable to others and not to me or the new authority. If he or she were in any way hindered or if any decisions were taken which go against the spirit of the new Environment and Resources Authority, this would have made his or her position untenable. They would have been perceived as an accomplice in any controversial decision.”

Brincat’s answer suggests that he feared that his appointee, however good s\he may have been, would have easily ended up bogged down in the swamps at MEPA, which remains firmly within the control of the Prime Minister’s parliamentary secretariat. A case in point where the EPD was completely sidelined was in the site selection exercise for the proposed American University, prepared by the office of MEPA’s CEO without any consultation with the EPD. It was this study that selected Zonqor while  overlooking a number of environmental constraints.  

Brincat insists that MEPA was not “technically wrong” in not consulting with the EPD, saying this was not a decision that required the approval of the MEPA board.

But here lies the rub in understanding Brincat the minister: he may wish to do things differently, but “there is a difference between what is technically correct and what is to be expected.” 

Because he then says he doesn’t “answer hypothetical questions” when I ask him what he would do if the future Planning Authority carries out a similar site selection without consultation the Environment Authority [that will replace the EPD]. 

Brincat’s caution in public speech has now stamped him with the uneviable quality of being politically weak, with speculation that he has been sidelined and possibly even on the way out. But he denies rumours of being offered a kick upstairs to the European Court of Auditors. “You seem to know more than I do on this matter but I assure you that nobody has made any such proposal to me,” Brincat replied, a slight hint of offence reverberating in the tone.  

But Brincat remains unfazed by criticism about his ineffectiveness as minister, and gives the impression that his influence in government is greater than it looks from the outside, something I am tempted to believe.  

For while Brincat is known for his unquestionable loyalty to the PM, he is also more sensitive and receptive to criticism made by NGOs than other ministers. But has the pendulum swung too far from his grip?

He claims that he has “sensitised the government on a number of topical issues.”

An example is the MEPA demerger itself, he says, insisting that this was a major improvement over a consultation document first issued in March 2014 in which the Environment and Resources Authority (now the Environment Authority) was not represented in the executive council of the new authority.

But one of the government’s greatest failures was its failure to inspire trust among ENGOs to the extent there was unanimous consensus among all of them, that the government was riding roughshod over civil society.

Weeks after a massive protest organised by the Front Harsien ODZ against the proposed campus in Zonqor, the controversial Strategic Plan for the Environment and Planning (SPED) was approved in an overnight second reading of three bills for the overhaul of the planning regime. Even past PN governments would use the end of July to discuss controversial issues like local plans and the infamous rationalisation of building zones: was the timing an attmpt to get the new laws cleared while the people are more distracted?

Brincat immediately points out that the discussion in the “more crucial committee stage” will take place after the summer recess. NGOs have now been given till 7 August to present their written submissions on the new laws, allowing MPs to include any amendments in committee stage before the final vote.

“The timing is dictated by the need to give unions representing workers at MEPA a clear cut-off date for the separation. They wanted a clear deadline and they did not want the process to drag on eternally. Therefore on our part we wanted to conclude the process by summer.”

But he acknowledges that it was the government, not the unions that decided on the summer 2015 deadline. He points out that the EPD have been involved in talks since the beginning, along with MEPA unions, and that the EPD’s submissions on a consultation document on the demerger issued back in 2012, will also be  made public. 

Brincat himself actively courted ENGOs before the general election. But does he feel in any way responsible for the fact that relations have now turned sour?  

“If the government has any blame in this, I assume the collective responsibility for this but I remain committed to hear all NGOs, even those who were harshly critical of me. We need good relations and synergy to achieve goals.”

Surely in the current debate Brincat has played the role of good cop. His call on NGOs to remain vigilant to ensure proper implementation of the new laws contrasted with planning secretary Michael Falzon’s distinction between genuine and “not so genuine NGOs” whom he takes with a “pinch of salt.” 

“Who am I to pass judgment on a colleague?” Brincat replies again when asked on Falzon’s statement, refusing to come down hard on the green lobby’s detractors.

“Regardless of the NGO involved I will always look at the merits of what they are saying not on who they are or what their background is.”

He also insists that he prefers a relationship with NGOs in which “dialogue takes place before flash points and clashes.”

But NGOs were particularly incensed after being given a 24-hour notice to attend a consultation meeting in parliament about the new laws before the public consultation period was extended to 7 August.

“Online consultation is an effective form of consultation and can be as good as a discussion around a table... especially if it takes the form of a well presented memo.” He refers to examples of other successful episodes of online consultations, such as that on the national waste strategy.  

Would it not have been better to consult NGOs and the public before the actual parliamentary debate to ensure they influence the debate? “NGOs were free to submit their feedback in real time during the debate itself... I had no problem with NGOs passing their feedback to the opposition.

“We had pressure from the unions not to procrastinate on the demerger… the last thing we wanted was to drag on with the process indefinitely. We could not allow the process to degenerate into an endless debating society.”

As a sign of good will towards NGOs, Brincat refers to the appointment of a NGO representative for the committee entrusted with strengthening the law setting up the Guardian for Sustainable Development. Of course, the backdrop to that was unprecedented resignation of all four members of commission after the depature of Michael Zammit Cutajar, who claimed their mandate could not be accomplished due to a lack of financial and staff support.

“I am disappointed that they resigned but we took this as an opportunity to heed their suggestion and have a fresh look at legislation by appointing a committee for this aim. We asked NGOs to nominate someone of their choice instead of appointing one of our choice.”

Brincat also wants NGOs to become more involved in the day-to-day running of nature parks like the Majjistral Park.

Ever the minister willing to be put to the scrutiny of others, this week he called on the media and ENGOs to watch “like a hawk” over the two authorities set to take care of environment and planning. Does this even suggest that Brincat himself is wary of his own government’s intentions?

“What concerns me is how the laws will be implemented.

“It is part of the media’s job – along with the green NGOs – to ensure that planning and environment legislation was being properly implemented. We stand to be judged by the implementation. It is useless to propose new laws without having the capacity to implement them. That would be a cosmetic exercise, and that is why I called on NGOs and the media to remain vigilant to ensure that we implement the new laws.” 

But will the new law effectively give the EA the same status as that of the Malta Tourism Authority, when it comes to consultation on planning applications?

Brincat defends the new set-up from accusations that it has removed the environmental aspect from planning, pointing out the inclusion of two EA representatives in the Planning Authority’s Executive Council which will decide on policies.  

“It would have been humiliating if the EA were relegated to the role of an external consultee as suggested by the consultation presented in 2014 but this is not the case because the authority will be represented in the executive council where policies are discussed.”

But what power would the authority have to stop an application for a construction development in any locality, which would for example create more traffic and air quality problems?

Brincat insists that he sees no need for the EA to intervene on “purely planning issues”, but when planning issues have a bearing on the environment he expects that the issues would be tackled “earlier on” and not at the end of the process through “fire-fighting”.

It’s still unclear as to how the synergy between the two authorities will work out, although Brincat is quick to point out that in the old authority the environment was subjugated to planning.  

I point out that development permits often have a direct impact on Malta’s ability to comply with EU targets on waste, air quality and water. Would the separation not make it even more difficult to ensure that these targets are not thwarted through bad planning?

Brincat insists that most of these issues can be tackled on a level of policy and not at the level of permitting. “To me the major role of the new authority is to ensure synergy between different ministries and departments on environmental issues. Another role is to address problems of lack of manpower in various sectors, which result in an inability to collect data on a variety of issues.”

One major difference is that the EA will be able to appeal against decisions taken by the planning board (as will the government itself) in front of the Environment and Planning Review Tribunal.

“Giving a public authority the power to appeal against a decision taken by another authority may be politically embarrassing for any government. But we are taking that risk.”

For Brincat having this latent power to appeal will strengthen the authority’s say in planning matters from an early stage. 

He is also committed to ensure that reports by the new EA will be published, and is keen to make a difference in meritocratic appointments, stating his agreement with AD deputy leader Carmel Cacopardo – a critic of the demerger – that the autonomy of the new authority depends on having people of integrity at its helm. “Appointments in the authority will be made through calls for applications,” he says, pointing out that it is not just the perception of ENGOs and developers which counts, but also that of the “ordinary taxpayer”.

Here he refers to surveys under the previous administration that showed MEPA being perceived as the most corrupt institution in the country, more than politicians and the judiciary.

I point out that one factor eroding trust in MEPA was the way it would regularise illegal developments, and fail to clamp down on older illegalities. How could he, now as environment minister, agree with the legal clause allowing MEPA to regularise illegalities in ODZ and scheduled areas through the removal of the Sixth Schedule, which was introduced in 2010 to ban MEPA from green-lighting these illegal developments.

Brincat does not give a categorical reply. “One of the tasks of the EA is to assert itself on illegal developments... admittedly some aspects of the planning law can be a bone of contention and can raise legitimate concerns, which can be addressed in amendments at the committee stage when parliament will revisit the laws.”

Again, in opposition Brincat criticised the PN’s ‘project-driven’ policy on energy. But the proposed SPED already lists a number of projects like the cruise liner terminal, land reclamation, the Gozo airstrip and tourist development on already developed areas of Comino.

“This is merely a declaration of intent which sets out generic priorities not tied to a particular developer,” Brincat says.

The SPED proposes ODZ development “where no other feasible alternative exists in urban areas” and that  projects of a “sustainable” nature can be permitted in ODZ “as a last resort where it is essential for the achievement of sustainable development”.

But environmentalists claim these are loopholes that can be utilised to bring development into protected areas like Zonqor Point.

“Ideally no ODZ development should be allowed but in practice saying no ODZ at all costs is not practical,” Brincat says.

He even subscribes to statements by Lawrence Gonzi, who while expressing his personal opinion against granting permits for ODZ development, had warned in 2013 that this could not be a straitjacket policy, as there were instances where ODZ permits were necessary.

He also refers to Church school development applications as another example of why one cannot be so categorical. But he refuses to say that the Church school application in Ghaxaq is in itself wrong, insisting on the need of some flexibility.

When I press Brincat on the arbitrariness of terms like “feasibility” and “sustainability” which may be used to justify ODZ development that is not necessarily agricultural, Brincat replies that “ODZ development must be a last resort” and that the SPED clauses do not provide “carte blanche.”

James Debono is MaltaToday's chief reporter on environment, planning and land use issues, ...