Less planning… more authority?

It remains to be seen whether a MEPA reform to reduce bureaucracy can be achieved without weakening environmental regulations.

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

When former prime minister Eddie Fenech Adami set up the Planning Authority in the early 1990s, it was in part to address the widespread perception that his government was held hostage by building contractors, against a backdrop whereby economic growth was inextricably linked with urban development.

The resulting 'Malta Environment and Planning Authority' (as it is now known) has been controversial ever since. Up until the 2008 election, planning decisions such as the extension of the development boundaries had provoked an outcry from a then-active environmentalist lobby; elsewhere, early decisions such as that to sanction an illegal tuna penning farm in the mid-1990s had signalled that, despite the distancing of such decisions from the political class, hidden (and sometimes fully visible) business interests still somehow managed to guide the authority's decisions.

The result was a widespread erosion of trust in the authority. Popular perceptions were that MEPA would come down like a tonne of bricks on minor infringements such as the illegal extension of a balcony or a washroom on the roof. At the same time, MEPA proved alarmingly lenient in cases which had a major impact on the quality of life in individual parts of the island. Perhaps the most emblematic of these cases remains the approval of the enormous Fort Cambridge project in Tigne': a decision taken before the board members had even voted on the issue.

Another problem was that MEPA was also widely held responsible for slowing down the pace of economic growth, by creating unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles in the issuing of development permits, etc. Again, small-time developers found more obstacles placed in their path than applicants for large-scale projects. Inevitably, the perception of corruption set in and proved difficult, if not impossible, to dispel.

Striking a balance between these two polar opposite concerns has consistently proven beyond the capabilities of successive administrations of government - culminating in Joseph Muscat's electoral promise, shortly before the last election, to split the authority's twin responsibilities of 'planning' and 'environment'.

This marks the second major reform of the planning sector, after Lawrence Gonzi had also taken upon himself a commitment to "redress the environmental deficit" after 2008: a commitment that was arguably doomed to fail, seeing as he prefaced his entire tenure of office by reaching a pre-electoral agreement with the Armier squatters (a mistake repeated by the incoming Labour government on the eve of the last election). 

Joseph Muscat's approach has in fact been no less worrying from an environmental point of view. A cursory glance at the Prime Minister's portfolio reveals that land use and planning are high on the list of government's priorities. Apart from taking public administration and the coordination of planning, policy and priorities, Muscat's portfolio includes MEPA, the Land registry and the joint office.

The major difference, however, is that unlike Gonzi, Muscat was elected on a platform of reducing bureaucracy and openly pandering to developers' lobby and with a list of promised projects like land reclamation and yacht marinas.

Moreover while in 2008 the environmental lobby was at the height of its political strength, the entire lobby seems to have simply disintegrated following the change in government. Environmental issues were all but completely absent from the 2013 election campaign, possibly due to absence of big environmental issues in the preceding five years (itself a testament to how the previous government had learnt from its mistakes), and probably also due to bread and butter issues prevailing in the current economic climate.

Facing a climate of international economic uncertainty, Joseph Muscat is also confronted by a major temptation to use construction and development to kickstart the economy - not unlike Fenech Adami in the 1990s.

With his room for fiscal manouvre severely curtailed, the country's ability to deliver promised tax cuts now depends almost exclusively on higher economic growth.

Interestingly like Gonzi before him - who had appointed Mario de Marco as the parliamentary secretary responsible for MEPA - a parliamentary secretary will assist Muscat.

Michael Farrugia, a Health Minister in Alfred Sant's Cabinet, will be responsible for both planning and simplification of the administrative process... itself a clear indication that that Muscat's priority in reforming MEPA will be to reduce bureaucracy. 

However, it remains to be seen whether this can be achieved without weakening environmental regulations. Initial indications are less than encouraging. The appointment of Robert Musumeci in an advisory capacity may even make sense given his experience as an architect and relevance to the post; but coming so soon after his open criticism of the outgoing government, it smacks of political back-scratching.

Moreover the decision to fast-track certain projects indicates that the major issue regarding the different weights and measures used in gauging permit applications will remain as problematic as before.

Above all it remains inauspicious that an environmental lobby that had kept the previous government so effectively on its toes, appears to have simply evaporated in recent months and years.

This bodes ill for the environment health of the nation; as now more than ever before, the temptation to embark on a free-for-all development spree - unshackled by previous bureaucratic obstacles - will be harder for the incoming government to resist.

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