Only a clean sweep can save MEPA | Ian Castaldi Paris

Outspoken Lija mayor (and PN candidate) Ian Castaldi Paris argues that it will take more than just a 25% reduction in bureaucracy to change popular perceptions of a failed planning authority. More like a 100% removal of personnel…

“As far as I’m concerned, you can restructure MEPA all you want, but unless there is a clean sweep of the people involved, it will not achieve anything in practice”.
“As far as I’m concerned, you can restructure MEPA all you want, but unless there is a clean sweep of the people involved, it will not achieve anything in practice”.

Something seems to be missing from this election campaign. With all the talk so far focusing on energy, corruption, party financing and other specific promises, one issue seems to have dropped from the national radar altogether.

The environment.

With the possible exception of the recent energy debate (which touched peripherally on matters such as air pollution), and the Labour Party's proposal to split the 'E' and 'P' components of the Malta Environmental and Planning Authority, it seems the same issue that had brought hundreds of people out onto the streets in 2006 - year of the ODZ extension - is no longer much of an issue at all.

Has the environmental situation improved to a point where people are no longer even concerned? Has it been overshadowed by bread-and-butter issues such as the price of water of electricity? Or is there a quiet substratum of the electorate that remains just as concerned as it was in 2006... but which is simply not being picked up by the parties' antennae?

PN candidate (and Lija mayor) Ian Castaldi Paris is himself one of those who still voice grave concerns about environmental matters - and being both a public notary and a local councilor who has very publicly crossed swords with the planning authority, his main grievance concerns MEPA: in particular, what he describes in terms of a non-level playing in the granting of development permits.

"People grumble a lot about the time it takes to get a permit approved, the expenses involved, and so on. But when you take a closer look at the individual procedures adopted in these cases, you will realise that the real problem is a lack of consistency. There are no clear guidelines which are the same for everybody. Minor objections in one case may be given top priority by a case officer, while major objections are ignored. And even worse, the approach often changes depending on the case officer... so another case comes along where the same objections will result in a different decision, etc."

Castaldi Paris is not exactly the first to point out these and other discrepancies; but after years in which 'MEPA bashing' had almost become a national sport - to the extent that the Prime Minister felt the need to relieve Minister George Pullicino and assume responsibility for the authority himself - little seems to have been done to actually address these widespread complaints.

And people continue to complain, even if their disgruntlement no longer takes the form of street protests. Like all other candidates, Castaldi Paris is currently busy hopping from door to door - an exercise which invariably opens windows onto the private concerns of ordinary citizens. And while not everybody who comes into contact with MEPA necessarily comes away dissatisfied, he argues that when such problems do arise, they nonetheless have an enormous impact of voting intentions.

"Today, many people's votes depend on personal issues. However I am sure that if someone was unjustly hurt by MEPA it will become major consideration."

Castaldi Paris often cites one instance he learnt about on a constituency visit, in which a property developer had paid €11,000 while applying for a normal permit, only for the permit to be turned down for no apparent reason.

"Then, in order to avoid a lengthy appeal process, the same developer re-applied for the same permit, under the same conditions... and this time the permit was issued. Here I think this person will surely not vote as a result of this experience. He will only recover the first permit expenses paid to MEPA by means a court case. This is really unjust. It upsets me when I come across these cases and nobody gives a definitive explanation to these people....

Yet while at least one Nationalist candidate stresses the need to address MEPA's shortcomings as a priority, his party does not envisage any major reforms. The PN's manifesto includes individual proposals for MEPA: such as setting up a 'business unit' to assist in commercial applications, for instance. But certainly nothing as radical as Castaldi Paris seems to suggest.

Not so Labour, which proposes splitting the authority into two: separating the directorates concerned with planning and the environment, as part of Labour's declared aim to 'reduce bureaucracy by 25%'.

The Nationalist Party response to this has to date been sporadic. Tourism Minister Mario de Marco made the pertinent observation that dividing MEPA would relegate the voice of environmental NGOs to but one among 15: a dilution that (de Marco contends) will surely weaken the environmentalist lobby and reduce the necessary checks and balances.

Surprisingly, however, Ian Castaldi Paris doesn't seem very impressed with either the PL's proposal, or the PN's rejection of the same.

"As far as I'm concerned, you can restructure MEPA all you want," he says bluntly, "but unless there is a clean sweep of the people involved, it will not achieve anything in practice".

He points out that the real problems do not concern the structures of the authority, but rather its attitude: the way it treats citizens, and above all its apparent habit of adopting ad hoc and sometimes contradictory approaches the same issues.

But this in turn raises a question. Can this problem be addressed through a total overhaul of the personnel involved? Isn't some form of structural reform also necessary?

"I strongly believe that it is the mentality of how things are done at the authority has to be changed. Yes, structures must also be strengthened and increased, as there are many cases that simply cannot be treated using the same yardstick..."

But what underpins all these issues is another concern: credibility.

"A clean sweep will also be a first step towards convincing the public that a new MEPA will really be effective. Unfortunately, MEPA has lost so much credibility with the people that even if it were to suddenly start running perfectly, it will still take time for the people to start believing this..."

There is also an issue concerning legislation; and again, Castaldi Paris argues that this cannot be addressed merely through a structural reform of the kind proposed by Labour.

Here he draws on his own direct experience, through a number of very public run-ins with the authority in his capacity as Lija mayor.

In recent years, Castaldi Paris objected to two major development projects that would have arguably impacted the character of the picturesque village. The first concerned a development application across the road from the Belvedere (on the road leading into the main square); the second an application for a 40,000 square metre development that Castaldi Paris argues shouldn't even have been considered in the first place.

Though he was successful in both cases, the experience led him to identify a major flaw affecting the planning department as a whole. It concerns the local plans, which Castaldi Paris argues were drawn up without any regard to the special characteristics of unique areas.

"Unfortunately I can conclude that the way local plans were made leaves much to be desired. In a country like Malta, what we need is not a blanket plan which treats everywhere in exactly the same way. What we need are tailor-made plans for individual towns and villages..."

As an examples he cites the fact that the same planning considerations applicable in Sliema - a major shopping precinct with its own distinct circumstances and problems - will be also be applicable to Lija: a residential area with a completely different character.

"What sense does this make? With these regulations you could apply for a huge supermarket bang in the middle of Lija, which would simply ruin the entire area... yet there is no technical reason for MEPA to refuse the permit. This is ridiculous. You can't compare Lija to Sliema: one is commercial and overdeveloped, whereas the other is a quiet residential locality and still retains its original features. The two localities have nothing in common, and therefore MEPA here must cater for two different markets. So yes, local plans must be dissected and tailor-made to suit the individual localities to which they apply."

Immediately after the Belvedere case, the Lija Local Council took the trouble to draw up its own action plan for the village: a plan which Castaldi Paris presented to MEPA in the hope that the same shortcomings would be addressed on a permanent basis.

His face darkens when I ask him what happened next.

"Was the plan accepted? No. Not only that, but the official even told me that it would make a nice addition to the Lija local council's own library..."

Castaldi Paris doesn't hide the fact that he took offence at that remark, which he claims is itself symptomatic of the authority's underlying attitude problem. Nor is the only one within the PN to feel this way - in fact similar sentiments are shared even within MEPA itself.

"After winning the Belvedere Case, many high officials confirmed to me that they still cannot understand how such local plans were made in the first place. I am ready to disclose names if need be, as I have nothing to hide or be afraid of..."

Has he considered putting himself forward to actually run the authority himself?

He smiles wryly. "I would not mind being a MEPA chairman. It's something I'd consider doing on a voluntarily basis, as I think to be a MEPA chairman you must be a decision-maker, capable of taking stands, be efficient and also sensitive to the public. You must also have full control of all your employees and if someone is bypassing you or is not performing the way you want him to, then there is just one way: replace..."

At a glance this seems to place Castaldi Paris's vision much closer to that of the Labour Party: which also proposes a form of 'replacement', only one which focuses on offices and departments,  rather than the individuals who occupy them.

One recurring theme in Labour's strategic vision for MEPA concerns red tape: with Joseph Muscat proposing to remove structures which theoretically act as environmental safeguards, in order to (apparently) facilitate development at all costs.

Is Castaldi Paris concerned by some of these proposals? Let's take the one about reducing bureaucracy by 25%: doesn't this suggest that a Labour government will take short cuts

that might affect the environmental concerns... not to mention issues health and safety, etc?

The Lija mayor admits to being divided on the issue. "Certain bureaucratic areas should perhaps be bypassed, yes. However, others involving studies and appeal stages do need to take their time... I do not know however exactly what PL have in mind here..."

As for the percentage, like many people Castaldi Paris views this as something entirely arbitrary. Why specifically 25% (and not, say, 20 or 30%)? On what basis was the calculation made?

"I like the percentage calculation, though. It makes me smile, as some measures cannot be calculated in terms of such exact percentages..."

But he does concede that a certain degree of bureaucracy reduction is in itself a worthwhile goal, though it may prove less achievable than Labour's manifesto makes it sound.

"The PN has always done its best to reduce bureaucracy; however in reality things are easier said than done. You must be in the scenario to really believe the sort of circumstances you come across..."

Labour, he adds, seems to be unfamiliar with these circumstances, judging by the quality of the promises it is currently making. One example concerns the timeframes proposed for Labour's energy proposals: to which Muscat has pre-emptively tied his own survival as Prime Minister.

"It's very obvious that the strategy the PL came out with on this energy issue is a joke. From my experience these things always take time. Doing one small pavement also requires certain time frames - you can't avoid it; there are permits to obtain, appeals stages to go through, and so on. I have no doubt PL's consultant on this is just not aware of this. I can't help but feel that the person entrusted with all this is just an amateur who is still learning what politics even is..."

He is nothing if not confident on this point. "I will be proved correct here," he asserts. "I have no difficulties in stating that if PL is elected, this proposal will just turn into one big mess...."

Ironically, his own government's handling has attracted almost identical criticism: and while Castaldi Paris may not have joined in specifically on the energy issue, his scathing criticism of MEPA (which falls firmly under the Prime Minister's aegis) places him in that small coterie of PN officials who are vaguely viewed as 'dissenters'.

Nonetheless, when asked what the biggest mistake made by his party in recent years was, Castaldi Paris insists that while mistakes were undeniably made, the PN remains a party that can be trusted to get the most important things right.

Like most other 'dissenters' he singles out the honoraria issue as the biggest faux pas to date... although he insists that it was the timing that made it wrong, not the decision itself. 

"It came out at a sensitive time, perhaps, when the economy was going through a rough patch. But it had been decided way before, and in itself it was an understandable decision. MPs and Ministers deserve a good salary, with all the hours and time they put into their work.... so if I refer to it as a mistake at all, it was only in the sense it was done at the wrong right time..."

Here he echoes another critical PN insider, with the argument that on balance, the PN's good outweighs the bad. But isn't this a dangerous argument? Couldn't it be taken to imply that we should put up with mistakes just because they come from the PN, and not from Labour?

"There are mistakes and mistakes," he replies. "For the really serious mistakes, I would refer you to the PL's constant wrong decisions such as not being in favour of the EU, not being in favour of the Euro... I call these mistakes, as today the PL is in favour of all this despite them not being in favour of these same measures years ago. U-turns show a lack of leadership, and this is why the PL worries me if it had to be in power. They are well geared up for 9 March, no doubt... but are they ready for 10 March onwards? I'm not so sure..."

More in Interview
George Busuttil
How refreshing when a politician speaks his mind and does not mince words. A rare breed indeed...Mepa has indeed become a dinosaur and keeping it on life support will just prolong the inevitable.
Anthony Demanuele
Whilst a "clean sweep"-read radical reform- as suggested here of authorities such as MEPA -and the MFSA -are earnestly sought,does a new broom always sweep clean?As if this clean sweep is effected will it ensure that things will change and moreover,change for the better?

Get access to the real stories first with the digital edition