Vince Cassar | High time to discuss restructuring development industry

NESTOR LAIVIERA speaks to Vince Cassar, President of the Chamber of Architects and Civil Engineers, about the ongoing debate concerning MEPA, and the local development and construction industry

President of the Chamber of Architects and Civil Engineers Vince Cassar
President of the Chamber of Architects and Civil Engineers Vince Cassar

Both parties seem to be agreeing that the development and construction industry needs to be revitalised in the coming legislature. What do you think this means?

What I hope this means is that the development and construction industry is to be given the tools it needs to focus on delivering an urban environment that speaks of quality. Our urban environment mirrors the state of our society, and society appears to be demanding more and more in all aspects.

Therefore, why not in the construction sector also? Any measures which result only in the further exploitation of our land and the over-densification of our urban spaces will continue to bring the industry down, since the public is seeking a quality product and not one that simply maximises on space while minimising on costs and detail.

Rather than talking about revitalising the development and construction industry, we should, in my opinion, be talking about restructuring the industry.  

Do you feel that the proposals tabled by the Labour Party and the Nationalist Party will allow the development and construction industry to emerge from the downturn it has been experiencing for the past couple of years?

The development and construction industry will benefit from any measures that alleviate the financial burdens on land and property owners. This includes various measures that are not directly related to the industry, such as taxation regimes and other incentives. In reality, the downturn cannot be attributed to any one specific reason, so it is difficult to pinpoint which aspect needs to be addressed as a priority.

The proposals being tabled by both parties, which aim to directly incentivise this sector, are nevertheless a step in the right direction and, if implemented well, can go a long way towards giving the sector the impetus it needs to move forward.

What is your opinion on Labour's proposal to separate the environmental function and the planning function of the Malta Environment and Planning Authority into two separate entities? What will this achieve?

It is difficult to say what this will achieve. The two are intrinsically connected and decisions taken by one affect the other. Sustainable development is based on three main pillars - environmental, economic and socio-political sustainability. The three aspects cannot be separated and any decision taken needs to be based on an analysis of how the proposed development impacts on these three issues. The term environment, in the discussion you refer to, is taken to mean the natural environment - however our environment is made up of much more than that, including the built environment, our infrastructure, our resources and our cultural heritage, to name a few components. All of these should have equal weighting in the decision making process.

One criticism of the current regime is that it is the Planning Directorate which consults with all relevant entities, including the Environment Directorate, and which tables a report recommending what decision should be taken with respect to a proposed development. It may be time to review this. The Planning Directorate should focus on land use issues and make its recommendations solely in this regard, and its recommendation should be tabled together and at par with all other responses from consultees. It is then up to the decision maker to seek to achieve a balance that, as far as possible, addresses as many of the concerns raised as possible.

Having Planning and Environment together with Resources under one Ministry, would perhaps result in more synergy between these functions and lead us to give due and proper consider to the concept of Integrated Resource Management.   

According to Labour's proposal, the planning 'function' will be performed by an entity (Planning and Sustainable Development Authority) that is likely to place a big emphasis on sustainable development.  What is your reaction?

What's in a name? MEPA should already be doing this and moving in this direction. When the 2011 MEPA Reform was being discussed I had opined that there should be a central policy unit that would be entrusted with the onus of addressing policy-making across all government sectors, particularly those which in some way affect the built environment. A Sustainable Development Act was enacted and a Commission established. However, we have not seen anything else since then.

Having the 'planning function' effectively taking in its stride, supporting, upholding and practicing principles of sustainable development is a step in the right direction, as described earlier. It is essential, nevertheless, that amongst other safeguards MEPA must continue to have a strong input in policy-making as far as land use planning is concerned. It must, however, be stressed that it is the quality of planning and policy-making which should at the end of the day be the key guiding factor.  

It is now an accepted problem that Malta's vast stock of vacant housing units needs to be reduced before more residential units are developed. What is your opinion on this? Will both parties' initiatives aimed at incentivising the renovation of existing housing units be enough to put them back on the market?

One impact of the vacant housing stock on the market is the increase in property prices. The less land is available for development, the more expensive it gets, and ultimately so do the properties built thereon. Any proposals aimed at encouraging owners of vacant units, particularly those that lie within our urban cores, will contribute towards an amelioration of our urban environment as well as placing on the market properties which, ultimately, are valuable in their own right. These proposals, however, need to be accompanied by a well thought out policy on transport, parking provision and street quality.

A step in the right direction has already been done when government cancelled plans for the construction of further social housing units and resorted to a system of renting out properties from the private sector.

Labour has proposed the establishment of a Code of Conduct for architects, which would also involve sanctions for those architects who abuse their power - particularly with regards to the proposed 'freedom' to issue compliance certification. Is the Chamber in favour of such a Code, and with the expansion of architects' 'powers' in this way?

Since its inception in 1919, the Chamber has had the "duty of enquiring into any complaint made to the same with regard to professional practices which the Chamber shall consider to be inconsistent with the dignity of the profession..." (Architect's Ordinance). It has a long established Code of Professional Conduct that has been amended over the years to address the ever changing nature of the profession. The Chamber put forward a proposal for a revised Code of Conduct to Government in 2008, and this is currently awaiting parliamentary approval. Both the current Code of Conduct and the one being proposed by the Chamber contemplate sanctions against the perit who falters with respect to the Code. 

Both parties have proposed that periti should issue compliance certificates - this is neither a "freedom" nor a "power"; indeed it is a grave responsibility. The Chamber looks forward to discussing this proposal with both parties, however as a first reaction, it is difficult to understand how this will work, especially when considering the myriad of current rules and regulations, which are often unclear and open to interpretation. Nevertheless, the Chamber remains committed to ensure that all periti uphold professional standards in any responsibility they are required to undertake.

The current planning tariffs were criticised for being too exorbitant and led to a drop in developments. Both parties have pledged a review of the tariffs. In concrete terms, what sort of reduction is necessary to reverse this?

There are two aspects of the tariffs that need to be reviewed. First is the amount itself, which sometimes is higher than the fee being charged by the perit to take the project from concept to the finished project on site - any new tariff scheme should reflect the other costs involved in the construction of buildings, and should be commensurate with the contribution of the planning process to the project. Secondly, many applicants find it difficult to pay these tariffs before knowing whether they will even get a permit at the end of the process or not. A system of staggered payments is already in place, but this needs to be reviewed further.

Both parties are agreeing on the need to renew existing MEPA permits by another five years. Is this as necessary as the parties say it is? What will it achieve?

A mechanism for the renewal of permits by five years already exists. The Nationalist Party is proposing to retain this and to introduce a more flexible approach, as evidenced from the public consultation process initiated by MEPA and currently underway in this respect. The Labour Party is proposing a one-time automatic renewal of permits that are about to expire, that is, presumably, those issued after March 2008.

The Chamber has always been of the opinion that any application, including renewal applications, should be assessed in the light of policies prevailing at the time of application. Thus, if policies have not changed between the date of the original permit and the date of renewal, Labour's proposal could be adopted - the reality, however, is that this is not always the case, and therefore a one size fits all solution may not necessarily be the ideal approach.

Labour leader Joseph Muscat is pressing especially hard on the need to cut down bureaucracy in planning procedures. Is this emphasis warranted, and how can this best be done?

The Chamber's main criticism of the last reform of MEPA was that it focused almost entirely on procedures and hardly at all on the quality of the built environment, which should be the ultimate goal of any planning process.

While bureaucracy is a necessary evil, any measures that would reduce unnecessary paper work will certainly contribute towards a planning system which is less burdensome, as long as this does not detract from the necessary information being provided to the decision makers.