MEPA’s less expensive car | Vince Cassar

New MEPA chairman Vince Cassar is widely respected across the political spectrum. But can he resist the government’s temptation to go on a construction spree using MEPA as a rubber stamp in its bid to kickstart the economy?

Vince Cassar
Vince Cassar

Vince Cassar conveys the impression that he means business in running an authority which is set for yet another major shake-up following the election of a new government, having been reformed by the second Gonzi administration. In fact Cassar was himself involved in the previous reform in his role as president of the Chamber of Architects.

Unlike his two predecessors, Andrew Calleja and Austin Walker, both imported from the private sector, Cassar is a veteran civil servant. As an architect and former president of the Kamra, he is already familiar with planning procedures.

Nobody has questioned Cassar's credentials for the post. The question facing him is whether he can defend the Malta Environment and Planning Authority's autonomy in the face of the newly elected government's pre-electoral pandering to the developers' lobby.

Cassar's contract, which was recently tabled in parliament, states clearly that his role as the non-executive chairman of MEPA is to lead the board "in order to implement government policy on planning and environment and to advise the government accordingly".  He is also expected to assist and advise on the reform of MEPA and report directly to the parliamentary secretary.

Does this wording suggest that he will be acting as the extension of government on the MEPA board?

Cassar admits that MEPA as an organization is part of the government and points out that the  board (including the chairman) is appointed by the government.

"But MEPA has its autonomy. I do not have any interference from the minister on whether any permit should be approved or not. The law is very clear on this".

But he sees a role for the government in setting "a direction to certain policies".  

"If the electoral programme includes or excludes certain policies, it is obvious that the minister would expect to change a particular policy if it was stated in his party's electoral manifesto. I cannot say no to that. I would advise the minister on the repercussions of any such policy change, if any, but then it would be up to him to have the final say".

But nothing can be done behind people's backs because of the public consultation process that changes in policy have to go through.

Surely Cassar's vision for MEPA is in line with the government's declared priority to reduce bureaucracy.

"MEPA should become more user friendly. My aim is to ensure that the ordinary person would not feel that MEPA is a bureaucratic obstacle to getting a legitimate permit".

According to Cassar this requires less bureaucracy and streamlining procedures. MEPA is presently considering shortening procedures for certain permits without in any way neglecting existing policies.

"While I am aware that for normal planning applications a decision is given within the stipulated 12-week period after the validation, I still believe that for certain applications this period can be shortened through adjusting procedures... This will not be done at the expense of policies".

But will this accelerated procedure be a blanket move, applying to all kinds of permits?

"No, certainly not".

This fast-tracked procedure would apply to planning applications where one knows beforehand that they can be given a planning permit.

"Take, for example, a proposed terraced house on a vacant plot on a street lined with terraced houses in a zone already identified by local plans for two-storey developments. In such cases is it fair, after having screened the application, to take 12 weeks to be granted a permit?"

The fast-tracked procedure will apply to small-scale, individual projects, not large ones. Moreover, all such applications will pass through the screening process, which will ensure, for example, that the proposed development will not affect archaeological sites and other restricted areas.

"If there is nothing objectionable at the screening stage, I find no difficulty in fast-tracking such procedures".

But will it not result in objectors, like residents directly affected by a neighbouring development, having fewer rights?

"Objectors should retain all their present rights to object to a development. We are still working on the details and the parameters for this".

Neither will the new system apply to 'outside development zone' development.

"Any ODZ development will probably not even make it through the screening stage, let alone get fast tracked. When the Authority informs applicants, at the screening stage, that their proposal is not in accordance with existing policies, then this newly proposed procedure cannot be adopted".

The government's long-term goal is splitting the planning and environmental aspects of MEPA between two different authorities. Before the election Cassar was quite critical of Labour's proposal, insisting that "it is difficult to say what this will achieve. The two are intrinsically connected, and decisions taken by one affect the other. Sustainable development is based on three main pillars - environmental, economic and sociopolitical sustainability. The three aspects cannot be separated, and any decision taken needs to be based on an analysis of how the proposed development impacts on these three issues".

How does he reconcile these views with serving a government which plans to separate the environment from planning?

He insists that his overriding concern is not whether MEPA should be split two but in ensuring that the planning and environmental aspects are not divorced from each other if the separation takes place. At the same time, the new chairman makes it clear that his intention is not to relegate the environment entirely to the planners.

He asks, rhetorically, "Should we simply reduce the environmental authority to a single vote out of ten in the planning authority's board? Should the ongoing interaction between the planning and environmental directorates be lost completely?" His definitive answer is no.

In fact he wants to go beyond the existing scenario and argues that MEPA should move towards an integrated resource-management approach, which means that in planning issues one should not just consider the environmental aspect but also resource usage, such as water and energy, and transport, social impact and sustainable economic practice.

He recalls that as president of the Kamra tal-Periti he pushed for the creation of a unit within the Office of the Prime Minister which would bring together all these aspects to ensure a holistic approach, triggering a number of policy proposals which would be taken on board by the Planning Authority and developed into concrete policies.

"We should go in the direction of spatial planning, which means that we should assess policies with a three-dimensional and holistic approach, rather than a two dimensional model.

"The Authority, through an EU funded project, is today equipped with the necessary digital systems to adopt this approach. This will give us a clearer indication of the impact of policies on the streetscape."

But should planning policy be drafted by MEPA or by the government of the day?

Cassar insists on the principle that land use and planning policies are clearly a remit of MEPA, but he sees room for direction by the government on certain policies. He points out that even if a policy is proposed by MEPA, it still has to be approved at a political level.

"The process could start from MEPA on its own initiative, submitting its proposals for public consultation and finally having them approved by the government. But there could be cases where the government proposes a policy on certain aspects and MEPA takes it on board, submitting such a proposal to the same public consultation process. Policy proposals can even come from civil society or the private sector, but again these all need to go through the same procedures".

He also makes it clear that the revision of local plans should be under MEPA's jurisdiction.

"But MEPA should vigorously consult with local councils, as these are the people who are directly affected by any policy changes. MEPA should then formulate the draft and issue it for public consultation. The Authority should then come up with a final draft, which once again should be issued for public consultation. Subsequently a finalized draft would be approved by the MEPA board and sent to the government for its approval".

The government intends to issue a public call for tenders for land reclamation projects without earmarking the site itself. Wouldn't MEPA be faced with a fait accompli, given a planning application after the bid is awarded? Would it not be preferable if MEPA was involved in setting the parameters for land reclamation before such a bid was issued?

Cassar notes that this is normal practice when MEPA deals with proposals coming from the private sector. In practice someone who owns a piece of land thinks of a project and then applies to MEPA for planning permission. In fact generally people do not come to MEPA to discuss beforehand whether a project is acceptable.

"I am not saying that this is an ideal situation, as I would prefer if big developers first approach the Authority to talk and assess the pros and cons of a proposed development before presenting an application. This would avoid loss of time.  In this particular project the government is doing the same thing".

Cassar interprets the government's intentions on land reclamation as follows:

"Government is saying, 'I am not identifying any particular area or type of project, I am asking for ideas from the private sector for a project, which can be done on reclaimed land.' When these proposals from the private sector come to the government, I assume that it will start assessing which of these projects is most feasible. At this stage I would expect the government to ask for MEPA's reactions. The process would start from there".

Would it not be preferable if MEPA were involved from the beginning of the process?

"What MEPA can do at this early stage is indicate and limit the areas where projects can be considered, but we cannot determine what kind of project should be proposed. I find nothing wrong with letting the private sector come up with concrete proposals and present them, following which we will assess".

Cassar will receive an annual salary of €18,000 - €76,205 less than his predecessor, Austin Walker, who once described himself as "an expensive car". But unlike Walker, who was originally appointed as a full-time executive chairman, Cassar will be able to supplement his income with private work as long as it does not conflict with his MEPA duties. But since Cassar is an architect, a profession linked to planning, is there a risk of conflict of interest?

Cassar is quick to clarify that between 1973 and 2008 he was employed in the public sector and did not practice his profession privately. During that period he only presented applications to MEPA which were related to his public post, either as an applicant or as the architect representing the government. Only one or two applications were pending after 2008, and these were passed on to other architects within the public sector or to the new owners of the project.

"After 2008, I was not interested in presenting applications to MEPA for clients, I preferred to move into consultancy services. I did take on one application for a development permit, but this was a unique case. As soon as I had confirmed my appointment as chairman of Mepa, I renounced this application".

So what kind of private work will Cassar be doing while chairing MEPA?

"One can be involved in property valuations or structural calculations. One could also be involved in project management, as this does not in any way impinge on my responsibilities here at MEPA. I am presently also involved in insurance risk assessments which have nothing to do with MEPA".

What about cases in which Cassar will be engaged in private work with a client who, in the meantime, presents an unrelated application to MEPA?

Cassar makes it clear that in such cases he would declare a conflict of interest. "This is something I would do, for example, if a relative of mine were to present an application for a development".

In a demonstration of how scrupulous he is in such matters, Cassar disclosed a potential conflict of interest due to his past role as chief scout of the Scout Association.

"Upon taking up office I became aware that there was an application by the Association in relation to the campsite at Ghajn Tuffieha, and I immediately informed the board secretary of a possible conflict of interest if  ever the application made it to the MEPA board".

Cassar is presently inundated with work due to the resignations of the CEO and the director for environmental protection, two roles he has had to assume in the period before they are replaced.

"So one cannot gauge the workload under these circumstances. I obviously never expected my job to be limited to solely chairing the Thursday MEPA Board meetings. My input is certainly required on other days".

The replacement of these two officials will be made through an internal call for applications. Why not widen the net through an external call for applications, to ensure that the most talented person is appointed?

"It is certainly positive when prospective candidates for the posts already have internal knowledge and expertise on how MEPA works. For example, prior to becoming CEO, Dr Ian Stafrace, in his role as MEPA's legal advisor, was already very familiar with operations in the Authority. You need someone conversant with procedures, legislation, policies, etc."

One of the government's first actions was to reduce MEPA tariffs for developers. How will this impinge its precarious financial situation?

According to Cassar, MEPA's financial situation has been deteriorating for some time.

Presently the Authority has an accumulated deficit of €22 million. MEPA, being a government agency, always depended on the subvention given by government. At some point in time this subvention was decreased and fees for applications were increased.

"The result of this was that applications decreased, and the projection that the increase in fees would compensate for the deficit failed to materialize. Instead the deficit continued to increase".

In actual fact "the thinking behind the reduction of tariffs is that applications will increase, so that the shortfall from income from fees will be made up for by income from more applications".

This projection is based on the fact that when the fees increased, applications for screening continued to be processed at the same rate.

"Many of those who applied possess a screening letter telling them that they can go ahead with their application. However, many did not go further and submit a Full Development Application because the fees were prohibitive. These applicants can now assess the new fees and decide to apply. This is in fact happening".

The government is committed to very short timeframes with regards to the proposed gas infrastructure. Can these timeframes be kept if MEPA will be sticking to its rules?

"We are already engaged in discussions with the Energy Ministry to see how this can be done and to ensure that the necessary safeguards requested by MEPA are in place".

Will MEPA be insisting on an environmental impact assessment?

"If an EIA is required it will take place, but I am not fully informed with all the details at this point in time. The process is still under discussion. Our role is to ensure that the process is done correctly".