Land(s) ahoy!

The news about the setting up of a Lands Authority is welcome, even though the Opposition has adopted a negative attitude towards the bill

The Lands Department has been in the doldrums under so many administrations that it was about time something was done
The Lands Department has been in the doldrums under so many administrations that it was about time something was done

The news about the setting up of a Lands Authority is welcome. The Lands Department has been in the doldrums under so many administrations that it was about time something was done – let alone the Café Premier and the Gaffarena scandals that uncovered its lack of direction and the lack of a reliable system of checks to ensure that things are done in the government’s interests. The authority is to be run by a board of governors consisting of 10 persons, one of whom is an MP nominated by the Opposition and besides a CEO, it will also have a Chief Audit Officer heading an Internal Audit and Investigations Directorate.

There seems to be a serious attempt to ensure that the running of the day-to-day business of the authority is at arm’s length from the government of the day. In fact, the authority will be carrying out the functions that were previously assigned to the Commissioner of Land while being obliged to administer and make best use of all the land of the Government of Malta. The authority will also be expected to advise the government generally on the formulation of relative policies.

On paper, the functions of the responsible minister are practically limited to ensuring that the board of governors are fully informed of the government’s strategic directions relative to this Act, while it shall be the duty of the board to monitor the proper execution of such policies. Additionally the board is obliged to consult with the minister, and to immediately notify him or her when a request is made by the board to the Chief Audit Officer to investigate any recommendation or decision. 

The board of governors will be obliged by law to provide a centralised office for the receipt and processing of complaints, reports and assessment of information, and to formulate, implement and update plans and policies relating to the promotion of all government property.

As regards checks and balances, the proposed law obliges the minister to appoint a Chief Executive Officer after a public call and obliges the authority to keep an audit trail of all its files, including all documentation and reports.

There are also some decisions that cannot be taken by the minister and which would have to be referred to the House of Representatives where, presumably, the minister would have to justify such action. These include the dismissal of the chief audit officer.

Unfortunately the Opposition has adopted a negative attitude towards the bill. Malta being what it is, ensuring the absolute independence of state corporations or authorities from the  ‘longa manus’ of politicians is practically very difficult. I believe that in this case the legislator has made an honest attempt at ensuring this independence. 

When I set up the Planning Authority many moons ago in 1992, the Labour opposition at the time discounted the possibility of the idea of giving a degree of independence to the authority, saying it was a ruse intended to create a screen (paraventu) behind which the government would take decisions and attribute them to the authority. They also had claimed that the creation of the Planning Authority was yet another ploy to create jobs for the boys.

They would not even consider the possibility that it was an honest attempt to ensure that day-to-day decisions on building permits would be at arm’s length from the political corridors of power.

When the Water Services Corporation was set up, Alfred Sant, then Leader of the Opposition said that this was unjustified and that a government department should suffice, repeating the ‘jobs for the boys’ mantra and promising its abolishment and replacement by a goverenemnt department by a future Labour government. When he did become Prime Minsiter he did nothing of the sort, kept the corporation while his administration used it for ‘jobs for the boys’ as well. Today the current Labour government boasts of the corporation’s success!

It is incredible how parties in opposition react in the same way to similar moves whether they are the PN or the PL. The party in opposition never credits the party in power with good intentions and always uses the same arguments, whoever is in power or in the opposition.

The setting up of the Planning Authority was partly a reaction on the mess and abuses in building permits that the country had experienced when Lorry Sant ran that particular show. Yet the opposition behaved as if that background did not exist!

This is the sort of thing that has made me become so cynical over the years.

Learning from abuses

Labour has a habit of covering up its own abuses and then indirectly acknowledging them by enacting laws to avoid their repetition.

The creation of the Lands Authority seems to be one of a series of Labour reacting to its own foibles.

Few people remember that the ‘Disposal of Government Land Act’ was enacted in July 1977 as a result of a Labour minister – the late Patrick Holland – acting as if he had inherited all government land from some old aunt. People my age remember the way the lease of the ‘Bonello Kiosk’ in Sliema was terminated to be replaced by the lease of the area occupied by the now defunct ‘Magic Kiosk’ given to the owner by ministerial dictat.

Mintoff produced this law intended to ‘regulate the grant on any title of immovable property belonging or adminstered by the government’ precisely to stop the abuses of his own minister!

Later on this law had many unintended consequences, such as giving Dom Mintoff – as a backbencher – the right to vote against the granting of government-owned land for the proposed Cottonera Yacht Marina... leading to the undoing of Alfred Sant’s government.

Mintoff also tried to rein in Lorry Sant’s abuses in the building permits area by enacting the Building Development Areas Act in 1983. This Act actually revoked all planning schemes and set out policies on building permits that were not site specific. Its major shortcoming was that it did not recognise the limited small size of land area in Malta – as though its size was infinite! 

Effectively, Lorry Sant defeated its purpose and everything was practically up for grabs.

This was the background of the situation that led to the setting up of the Planning Authority.

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