Muscat meets with NGOs and developers over MEPA proposals

Labour Leader Joseph Muscat meets representatives from the development sector and local NGOs to discuss the PL’s MEPA reform proposals.

Labour leader Joseph Muscat.
Labour leader Joseph Muscat.

Muscat with the two camps in two separate meetings just hours after Labour delivered a set of proposals aimed at restructuring MEPA - primarily by splitting its dual environmental and planning functions, with the ultimate aim of stretching its environmental function while streamlining its planning bureaucratic function.

Speaking about Labour's proposal to have a representative from Malta's NGOs sitting on the boards of the proposed Environment and Resources Authority and the Planning and Sustainable Development Authority, Muscat urged NGOs to present "a united front."

He said that government would not chase NGOs or consult them singly to determine whom they preferred as a representatives. "We are expecting you to come to us with a shortlist."

The proposals were not met without comment however. While some representatives and spokespersons welcomed the proposals, many more questioned some of the finer points, or made recommendations of their own.

Muscat faced particular pressure from environmental NGOs regarding he politically-controversial Armier boathouse issue, and avoided committing himself on the issue by insisting that Labour first needs to  see what agreements were made between government and the boathouse owners.

FAA chairperson Astrid Vella welcomed that MEPA's dual functions be separated, but said that Labour's proposals do not place enough emphasis on the issue of over-development, insisting that a Labour government should do more to curb the development boom of recent years.

Muscat assured her that the overdevelopment issue is a priority for the Labour Party, and insisted that a Labour government can do more than simply wait for the updating of the structural plans by ensuring that tariffs incentivise the renovation of existing buildings instead of the construction of new ones.

Addressing concerns by Rudolph Ragonesi, Muscat conceded that more needed to be done regarding parking spaces, noting that MEPA had opted to use part of the Parking Fund was used to purchase Hexagon House from HSBC for MEPA, while some other funds were used "operationally by MEPA over the last few months to remain solvent."

Muscat noted that "this will pose a challenge" but insisted that Labour has its own proposals lined up for the transportation sector which it would unveil in the coming days. "We do not subscribe to the notion that if there are no parking spaces, people won't use cars."

He added that Labour is envisaging a situation where the Parking Funds are used in collaboration with the private sector.

Speaking about the long-overdue structural plans for land development, Muscat said that a Labour government would have no option but to review them. He however insisted that Labour would go into the process with a firm focus to resist the expansion of development areas.

"The legal terms are what they are, and they are up for review. Of course there will be pressure, but our rule of thumb will be that we do not need to broaden them further, as well as to focus on using up vacant property."

Muscat also said that a Labour government would look to it that MEPA is in a position to increase its professional capacity with regards to its regulatory function, adding that this is a priority across all regularisation sectors, and not just planning and development.

Answering questions regarding how Labour would consolidate enforcement, Muscat said that "we do not wish to create a new monster" adding that "It needs to be organic" and that it "might be centralised."

Hydrologist Marco Cremona also floated the idea that certain water and resource-related functions what currently reside within the Environmental Health Unit within the Public Health Department be included within the proposed Environment and Resources Authority.

He also noted that Labour had not spoken about allocating additional resources to the environmental function of MEPA, insisting that it is currently sorely understaffed and under resourced.

He said that the Malta Resources Authority has currently only one hydrologist that is tasked with keeping up with all of Malta's borehole extraction, as well as EU research.

Cremona also urged Labour to consider establishing the Sustainable Development function as an Authority in itself, which would then mediate between the Environment and Resources Authority and the Planning Authority.

Fielding questions regarding access to the countryside, Muscat said that the current white paper presented before parliament "is a good thing" and that Labour, "once in government that consultation will be brought to a close and its parameters respected, and then we can move onto legislation that better protects access to public places within the countryside."

During the second meeting, where Muscat met with various architects and representatives of the development industry, Labour's proposals received an overall positive reception.

Several spokespersons, among them Mala Development Association representative Sandro Chetcuti said that the present tariff regime is stifling development, and called for their immediate and drastic reduction.

He also urged that the MDA also be given a seat on planning boards alongside the Environmental and Resources Authority. "We are not saying that environmentalists should not have a voice. We should also have a right to input in decision-making, especially when it comes to policies."

Water Association representative Philip Grech also warned that despite being given a vote, the Environmental 'entity' risks having that vote lost among the others present on a planning board, and insisted that, in the interest of proper sustainable development, Labour looks towards more rigorous checks and balances. He also insisted that the Malta Resources authority needs greater resources to work with, and urged that its role be better defined.

He also called for caution with regard to the regularity amnesty proposals tabled by the PN, insisting that while some regularisation issues can be solved with a fine, some issues, like a lack of wells in residential units, result in problems that will have repercussions that will last as long as the development lacks a well.

On his part, Muscat emphasised Labour's commitment to fostering the creativity within the architecture profession by first carrying out design competitions whenever a national project is being planned and implemented.

Regarding wells, Muscat pointed to a recent change of law whereby it became legal for water to be disposed of in sewage systems. "While it is hard to ensure that some houses have wells, this law was a move in the wrong direction. We will be looking into it closely."

He also reassured the development industry that a Labour government would not approach planning and development with a "political mindset."

"We do not issue laws that appear tough for four years, only to issue a legal notice meaning that what one was denied for four years is handed out during the last two months," Muscat said. "We will keep in mind the business cycle and not the political cycle."

He insisted that once a Labour government issues a set of tariffs or a legal notice, or a reform, "it will stand. We will not be changing things on the eve of an election because of pressures on this side or that."

He said that "we believe that this sector is crying out for a breath of fresh air."

"Even if the development industry might not be a popular one we believe it has potential, and can be a sector where, within the realties that surround us, can be one of the leading sectors in the local economy."

In attendance for Muscat's meeting with NGOs were also representatives from Friends of the Earth, the Ramblers Association, BICREF, and Din L-Art Helwa.