A culture of condoning irregularities

Nowhere is this culture more visible than in the widespread cavalier disregard for planning policies and regulations by both developers and the national authorities.

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

Few can deny that Malta has over the years cultivated a reputation for condoning illegalities, especially those committed by strong commercial interests at the expense of the natural environment. In fact we can almost talk about a national culture based on mutual co-operation, under which ‘agreements’ and ‘arrangements’ can always be negotiated behind closed doors.

Nowhere is this culture more visible than in the widespread cavalier disregard for planning policies and regulations by both developers and the national authorities… including the Malta Environment and Planning Authority (MEPA), which ironically was established in the early 1990s specifically to combat illegal development.

Yet serious shortcomings continue to plague the construction and development sector to this day, and recent revelations paint a stark picture of the sheer extent of the ongoing abuse. It now transpires that a staggering 24 kiosks, lidos and other commercial beach developments in protected zones are facing enforcement orders.

Some of these orders go back to the 1990s and involve already failed attempts to sanction illegalities. Yet no action has ever been taken, suggesting that while all the necessary restrictions and regulations may exist on paper, in practice it proves impossible to enforce the same laws that are so often infringed.

Nor do the authorities seem overly enthusiastic when it comes to enforcing their own laws and policies. A few direct examples make this reluctance abundantly clear. One outstanding enforcement order involves illegal concrete paving in the Paradise Bay beach complex at Cirkewwa.

The order was issued in 1993, and according to MEPA’s files this case is still awaiting “direct action” 20 years later.

Such cases seem to have become the rule instead of the exception. The ever-popular Ghadira bay is also the site of various illegal establishments. An enforcement order against the development of a concrete platform, wooden canopy, stairs and concrete ramp without permit was issued against one beach concessionaire in 2010. The enforcement has been pending for the past four years.

Once again, no attempt has been made to regularise this development through a formal application. As a result the illegal structures are still there… and similar situations prevail in other beach sites such as Golden Bay and Ramla in Gozo.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that both Labour and Nationalist parties are understood to have reached agreements with the area’s squatter community, the illegal shanty town in Armier is Malta’s most gaping black hole of environmental law enforcement. Apart from the numerous illegal shacks and cabins built outside the development zones in a supposedly protected area, there are also two illegal beach lidos.

Again, efforts to regularise the situation have all come to nothing. Like many other such cases, the impetus to remove these structures was lost somewhere in the complex labyrinth of legal measures made available to developers to contest MEPA rulings. In the two Armier lido cases, the developers have already lost their battle to sanction the sites… yet the law allows for a cumbersome appeals mechanism that can (and time and again does) drag on for years and eventually decades.

It is easy to see that this entirely inadequate situation benefits both the guilty parties concerned and the law enforcers… who, in the case of MEPA, are answerable to a board appointed by the government, when the same government has already entered into electoral contracts with the local squatter community.

Clearly, the culture of ‘negotiation’ to reach ‘agreements’ in such cases is still thriving, despite the enormous changes at other levels that have taken place in Malta since EU membership in 2004. Yet it is worth remembering that from its original inception, MEPA (or the Planning Authority, as it was originally known) had all along been intended to put a stop to such wholesale disregard for planning laws. This was part of a wider series of developments aimed at weaning Malta off its unhealthy habit of simply condoning irregularities for either economic or political reasons.

MEPA was intended to introduce discipline and proper planning policies, in the same way (and for the same ultimate purpose) as VAT was introduced to combat fiscal indiscipline and eradicate a culture of commercial secrecy. All this was part of a package of reforms aimed at modernising the country in view of its new commitments as an EU member state… commitments which also include the need to protect the environment, especially areas of special conservation importance (many of which are now directly threatened by illegal development).

Faced with the sheer magnitude of MEPA’s failure to achieve this aim, we must now question the laws which allow for such obvious leeway to the benefit of those committing illegal acts. Clearly, the appeals process is flawed and currently subject to abuse… resulting in a continued prolongation of a status quo that has now reached alarmingly unacceptable proportions.

If MEPA is to be taken seriously as an environmental watchdog, it must take serious steps to mitigate the widespread (and, sadly, justified) perception that it exists to perpetuate illegality rather than to end it. Among those steps are an overhaul of its internal appeals procedures, and the introduction of functional policies that can translate into effective and timely action against irregularities.

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