The enemy within

This week’s major news item from the MEPA front makes interesting reading and gives rise to intriguing reflections.

MITA, the government's IT agency, was fined €2,330 for breaching planning laws when it changed the façade of its new data centre at Santa Venera without a permit - for which read 'before the relevant permit was issued'. It got out of paying an extra €50,000 fine (that was to be imposed under the dubious guise of a planning gain) thanks to the casting vote of MEPA Chairman Austin Walker.

The other side of the story is that MITA chairman, Claudio Grech, while regretting that works was carried out before the approval of the revised façade, had his own tale of woe. MITA had a permit for the necessary works issued in May and the issue here was solely the cladding of the façade in a different way from that indicated in the approved permit. MITA insists that this change was the result of research that led to what it believed to be a far more energy efficient building and as soon as the permit for works was issued in May, it applied for the permit to allow for the change in the façade. I do not blame MITA if it thought that this change in the façade should not take too long to be processed by MEPA - surely not the six months it actually took.

According to MITA, the application was only considered by MEPA in November, even though its Planning Directorate had recommended its approval earlier. So MITA was faced with an interesting dilemma: "The situation last September, when the rainy season begins," Mr Grech told The Malta Independent (26 November), "was that we had over €5 million worth of technology in place in an unsealed building. The high-costing equipment was at serious risk of damage which would hamper the entire plan for migration of servers".

Moreover, MITA was increasingly concerned that any delay would impinge on its information system rollout plans for the coming months. This delay could mean that teachers and students would not get access to the eLearning platform solution and more sensitively, any delay could in turn inhibit MITA from implementing the certification authority equipment which would result in a serious delay in the roll-out of the electronic ID cards which is due next year too.

That was when MITA - according to Claudio Grech - took the decision to go ahead with sealing the building, permit or no permit.

The problem that took so long to resolve, it seems, was that in just one area the new façade protrudes 16.5 cm instead of the 15 cm allowed by law. Even so, the point was made that the 15 cm permitted projection clause was being misapplied as it only applied to doors and windows. Others disagreed and even insisted that this was a Planning Control (PC) issue, necessitating a PC application to move the official alignment by 1.5cm! Personally, I think this was all typical MEPA bureaucratic nonsense. Is an extra projection of 1.5 cm worth €50,000? Your guess is as good as mine.

So there you have it: MEPA can now get out of its cash-strapped predicament by dragging its feet and exasperating genuine applicants for reasonable development permits, and then fining those (including State agencies) who cannot afford to wait the unjustified time taken for processing a simple permit.

The story comes on the heels of yet two other stories of woe involving MEPA and government deadlines. The first one concerns Smart City. Last October, The Times had reported that although the construction of the IT village was on target, the number of new jobs generated fell well below the levels established by a 2007 government commissioned study that said Smart City should employ some 2,800 people by 2011. Reacting to this report, the IT Ministry insisted that the project was "ahead of schedule",

but also pointed out that the 2007 contract with Smart City stipulated that the first jobs had to be in place two years after the "closing date", which had to be shifted because the government had not yet "fulfilled its obligations" to demolish the Wied Għammieq sewage pumping station on the site.

The reason for this delay: "Water Services Corporation is still waiting for planning permits to demolish it."

MEPA defended its position by saying - in its usual legalese dialect - that it will process a Water Services Corporation application for the decommissioning of the Wied Ghammieq sewage outfall plant within the agreed timeframes once it is in receipt of all documentation and changes necessary to the current application.

This is a permit to demolish a sewage outfall plant that is no longer in use! I understand that the issue does not concern the demolition of the building per se, but whether this demolition should include the removal of the 30-year old outfall pipe anchored to the sea bed, and the environmental consequences of the removal of this pipe. Idiots like me think that the expensive, useless removal of the pipe is more environmentally damaging than it lying abandoned and disused. But MEPA are no idiots... so before they even start processing the application they want an expensive professional environmental assessment to conclude what is obvious to idiots like me.

In any case, can't the two issues be separated? If MEPA allows the demolition of the part of the plant that is onshore and the WSC carries out this work, would government have fulfilled its obligations to Smart City? In that case, the issue of the pipe on the seabed (that does not lie on the land transferred to Smart City) could then be resolved within a timeframe based on the Greek calends - in MEPA's time honoured way!

But then, as I said, I am just an idiot. 

The other tale of woe concerns Palumbo's development of the shipyard. In a recent interview published in The Sunday Times, Antonio Palumbo - the managing director of Palumbo Shipyard - joined other entrepreneurs complaining about bureaucracy, by saying the company has been waiting for months to be issued permits for restructuring work.

It's MEPA again, of course. Unwittingly - or not so unwittingly - MEPA's bureaucracy is holding back Palumbo's restructuring works giving the Neapolitan entrepreneur a good justification for not investing in the development of the drydocks facilities within the time parameters indicated in his contractual obligations.

This is happening after a Lawrence Gonzi inspired 'reform' of MEPA. I always maintained that what was needed to be reformed was the mindset, attitude and culture of the people at MEPA who process development applications by applying planning polices, and not the legal parameters governing this processing.

Instead, we have had even more bureaucracy, leading idiots like me to suspect that this bureaucracy gives the perfect opportunity for some to undermine government plans by carrying out their duty 'conscientiously' to the letter of the law while happily ignoring the big picture.

Asking questions to Joseph Muscat is all well and good but it will not rid this administration either of its self-inflicted woes or of the enemy within.

More in Blogs