Rushing to dismantle the goalposts

Too often in the past we have seen cases where MEPA’s regulations – often criticised for being ‘strong with the weak and weak with the strong’ – were tweaked to facilitate development which should technically be illegal.

The ongoing controversy surrounding government’s plans to build an ‘American University of Malta’ on ODZ land has illustrated exactly why Malta needs a more serious planning and development regulatory framework.

Too often in the past we have seen cases where MEPA’s regulations – often criticised for being ‘strong with the weak and weak with the strong’ – were tweaked to facilitate development which should technically be illegal. Restrictions imposed by the local plans of 2006 have sometimes been bypassed altogether: the Zonqor proposal would itself be a good example, but there are others, mostly concerning building height restrictions to favour high-rise developments. 

Meanwhile, there has been growing resistance to this apparent wholesale dismantling of Malta’s already meagre environment protection laws. NGOs have formed a common front to safeguard what little remains of Malta’s severely overbuilt landscape: echoing a growing, concerted popular demand for greater environmental protection across the board.

Yet the present government seems to be steering in the clean opposite direction. Earlier this year a revised Strategic Plan for Environment and Development (SPED) was launched to replace the Structure Plan as Malta’s foremost set of guidelines for development and construction. On scrutiny, it transpires that the document is riddled with loopholes granting government excessive discretion to bypass regulations “in the national interest”.

And now, government attempted to rush three landmark laws to effectively separate the ‘environment’ and ‘planning’ aspects of MEPA through parliament, just before the summer recess.

These administrative changes will have far-reaching repercussions for Malta’s existing regulatory framework: they effectively shift the goalposts for environment protection and radically affect the procedures for granting or withholding construction permits.

It is clear that the government’s timing is suspect. The laws in question were published on the parliamentary website on Friday 3 July, and made available on the government website three days later. They were discussed in a two-and-a-half hour meeting of the parliamentary committee yesterday [Tuesday], and raised in plenary in Parliament this morning.

To compound matters, NGOs were given just 24 hours to prepare for a consultation meeting of two hours. Given the complexity of the laws themselves and the seriousness of their implications, this is tantamount to adding insult to injury. 

Following harsh criticism, government made some concessions and the third reading of the three laws will be held after the summer recess while NGOs and individual citizens have until the end of this month to file written submissions on the proposed laws. 

Admittedly the government did issue a 12-point document in April 2012, outlining its plans for the demerger of MEPA. But this was no substitute for a White Paper which includes all major changes envisioned in the new law. Unlike this document published three months ago, the Environment Bill alone is 76 pages long with 86 clauses: each of which has numerous sub-clauses and three schedules.

The new Planning Bill is 98 pages long with 105 clauses and four schedules, while the Bill envisaging a new Tribunal is 50 pages long, with 55 clauses and several sub-clauses. Clearly, not enough time has been allowed for NGOs to study the legislation and come up with an informed position ahead of the Parliamentary meeting.

One must therefore question even the legality of government’s approach to such a serious matter. The Aarhus Convention, to which Malta is signatory, supposedly safeguards the right of civil society to participate in environmental decision-making process. It stipulates that arrangements are to be made by public authorities to enable the public and environmental non-governmental organisations to comment on, for example, proposals for projects affecting the environment, or plans and programmes relating to the environment.

Moreover, these comments are to be taken into due account in the decision-making process, and information is to be provided on the precise reasons for taking the final decisions.

How any of this can be achieved when government has allocated only a two-hour meeting to consult the public – held at only 24-hours’ notice – is to say the least debatable. Judging by the haste with which this legislation is being hammered through, one gets the impression that government is keen to place its plans for the demerger of MEPA beyond the reach of public scrutiny or discussion.

This approach is clearly at odds with the Labour government’s electoral promise to ‘prioritise’ environmental matters. In fact it seems to be doing the opposite: by separating the environment and planning directorates in such a ramshackle and hurried manner, government is clearly prioritising development at the expense of the environment. 

As things stand, it would make more sense to postpone the whole legislative process to after the summer recess, to give civil society a reasonable time-frame within which to scrutinize the document and compare it existing laws. 

Past Nationalist governments had also exploited the beginning of the holiday season to approve the controversial extension of development boundaries in 2006. But a government elected on a platform of transparency should avoid such antics aimed at weakening opposition.  

A comparison by this newspaper already reveals that the new law would allow developers to present “anonymous” submissions to MEPA when plans are issued for public consultation; and allow MEPA to sanction illegal development in scheduled zones, reversing one of the most important aspects of the 2010 MEPA reform.

Such decisions have serious, weighty implications for the environment, which recent events have shown to be on the rise once more as an electoral concern. Yet government seems intent on rushing to dismantle existing environmental safeguards, before people have time to complain.

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