Planning law: Government accepting anonymous submissions on MEPA reform

Individuals and organisations who have sent submissions on the proposed planning and environment bills are being given the option of remaining anonymous.

Individuals and organisations who have sent submissions on the proposed planning and environment bills are being given the option of remaining anonymous.

Individuals who sent submissions on the proposed separation of the planning and environmental arms of MEPA are being told to choose between having their names published or not.

The government has committed itself to publish all the submissions made by individuals and organisations on the new law. The consultation period expired on August 7.

The new planning law itself, which has already been discussed in parliament but which is awaiting final approval, gives developers the opportunity to propose changes to their own advantage, without ‘showing their cards’.

By law every citizen can comment and submit proposals on any new planning policy or plans being discussed, and these comments are published together with the replies given by the Planning Authority to each comment.

This will not change in the new planning law except for one important detail: while at present anyone making a submission to MEPA have their name published, the new planning law would allow people to submit their comments anonymously.  

That means architects and developers with a vested interest in developing particular parcels of land, will be able to submit their comments on public consultations anonymously.

While the law approved in 2010 simply stated that when a plan or policy has been prepared, the Authority has to publish “a statement of the representations it has received and the responses it has made to those representations,” the new law states that the Authority should publish a statement of the representations “whether anonymous or otherwise”, and the responses it has made to those representations.

In the past, the publication of these names enabled newspapers like MaltaToday to establish a link between the final changes to plans and policies and the influence of vested interests on the planning process.

This is the second attempt by the government to introduce secrecy in the planning process.

In July 2013, the Malta Environment and Planning Authority announced that it was granting anonymity to anyone proposing changes to the local plans. The startling announcement was made in a power point presentation by MEPA as it launched public discussions for the forthcoming changes to the local plans – the guides to all decisions related to planning applications.

MEPA cited “data protection” as the justification for this change in policy. MEPA’s intention was to publish the reference number given to each submission – and not the name and surname of the person making the comment or submission.

But the publication of the names of the architects and companies proposing changes to Malta’s local plans was deemed not to be in breach of privacy rules by former Information and Data Protection Commissioner, Joseph Ebejer.

In fact, the decision to give developers the chance to apply was reversed in October 2013 following the declarations of the data protection commissioner.

“In the interest of retaining the same high level of public scrutiny and transparency, MEPA has reconsidered its decision not to publish the names of individuals or organisations who submit representations or proposals for change in any land use or policy review,” a spokesperson for MEPA told MaltaToday.