Whose job is it to ‘watch MEPA like a hawk’?

The government’s ‘strategic plan for the environment’ had clearly been drafted to accommodate “certain government projects” in ODZ areas, among other caveats that appear designed to facilitate development at the expense of the environment.

Cartoon by Thomas Cuschieri
Cartoon by Thomas Cuschieri

Environment Minister Leo Brincat raised eyebrows this week with his plea for “the media and NGOs to watch like a hawk over the two authorities set to take care of environment and planning”.

He also raised a number of questions regarding the country’s environmental protection infrastructure… for which he is himself politically responsible.

Brincat was speaking during the second reading of a bill that would split the two main responsibilities of the Malta Environment and Planning Authority between different ministries and regulatory bodies. This demerger has already been criticised by the same environmental NGOs Brincat calls upon to scrutinise, specifically because the concerns they raised during public consultation had not been included in the bill currently before parliament.

This discussion also takes place against the backdrop of two different but equally weighty environmental considerations: the recently launched Strategic Plan for Environment and Development, which is set to replace the 1996 Local Plans; and the announcement that the government plans to build a private university campus on ODZ land in Marsaskala.

In all three cases, ceaseless vigilance by NGOs was (and still is) routinely ignored by the government. In the case of SPED, the Strategic Plan for Environment and Development, this document has been under discussion for over four years now. Initial consultation phases were quickly superseded by the 2013 election… and following the change of administration, the public was abruptly presented with a document that had discarded all the propositions previously put forward by civil society. 

Instead, the government’s ‘strategic plan for the environment’ had clearly been drafted to accommodate “certain government projects” in ODZ areas… among other caveats that appear designed to facilitate development at the expense of the environment.

The same NGOs Brincat now calls on to act as environmental watchdogs were not impressed. Din l-Art Ħelwa complained that extensive feedback provided by NGOs during two consultation processes had no discernible impact on the finished document. The only changes, DLH added, were to reflect government intentions, such as the inclusion of a reference to land reclamation.

Similar complaints were raised by Friends of the Earth and Flimkien Ghal Ambjent Ahjar, while Front Harsien ODZ – spawned specifically in the wake of the Zonqor Point controversy – went one step further.

“We are disappointed at the government’s refusal to listen to civil society’s call to delete a number of controversial clauses from the SPED, which effectively give the government arbitrary powers to allow ODZ development,” FHO said.

“This is a clear case where an absolutist government is riding roughshod over civil society to impose its pro-development agenda on the country. The government clearly chose to ignore the unanimous consensus among environmental NGOs against these clauses which unfortunately weaken environmental protection in Malta.”

With regard to the MEPA demerger, suffice it to say that the government only gave civil society a mere 24 hours to prepare for a public consultation exercise, ahead of a parliamentary debate announced only three days after the bills were published. Moreover, the government went on to disregard a plea by civil society to postpone the parliamentary discussion until after the summer recess, which would have given NGOs a far more realistic four weeks to come up with their own proposals.

Finally, in the case of the AUM proposal for Zonqor Point, the government and MEPA in particular initially presented the public with a fait accomplit: the land in question had already been selected and approved by MEPA’s CEP itself, despite a clear MEPA policy commitment (published also in SPED) to “guide new development away from ODZ areas”.

In all three instances there was a clear pattern of behaviour exhibited by the government with regard to public scrutiny. Consultation exercises were carried out, only for civil society’s combined objections and criticisms to be cavalierly brushed off by a government that seems hell-bent on pursuing its highly dubious environmental policies regardless of any obstacles.

Ironically, Brincat himself admitted this later in the same speech:  “The government will go ahead with the MEPA demerger, irrespective of any submissions that may come in suggesting the contrary,” he said. “We have the mandate to do it and we will fight the status quo.”

This raises the question of why the same minister would now call on NGOs to be vigilant against any possible abuse by MEPA. NGOs – and the media, too – have been highly vigilant on this front for several years… yet Brincat himself has just assured us that it was all in vain. The government will simply forge ahead with its own plans, regardless of their combined efforts at scrutiny.

Considering that the same administration styles itself as a “government that listens”, the irony in Brincat’s appeal is almost an affront to civil society’s intelligence. 

On another level, it is also disingenuous of the minister to saddle both NGOs and the media with the responsibility of warding off possible environmental abuse. That happens to be his own job as Minister for the Environment, and (at least before the imminent demerger) also MEPA’s, as the main environmental regulator. 

From this perspective, the Environment Minister’s appeal is ultimately an admission that the present administration has abdicated its own responsibility for the environment, and now wants to pass the buck onto civil society.

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