July 25, 2009
by Carmel Cacopardo
Land use planning is a political process involving various disciplines and leading to policy decisions. The question to ask is: Who is to take the political decisions? My reply is clear and unequivocal: The policy decisions are to be taken by the elected politician.
As a nation we have come a long way from the corrupt 1970s and 1980s. But there is still much more to do. Mepa, notwithstanding its difficulties and problems, is (ironically) the most transparent public institution in the Maltese islands. This says a lot not just about Mepa but more about the sorry state of the other institutions!
Since inception, Mepa has been responsible for the drafting of land use policies, subjecting these to public consultation (not always in a satisfactory manner) and thereafter presenting its conclusions for the elected politician’s approval. Some of the ministers responsible for land use planning since 1992 have just signed on the dotted line. Others queried and insisted on changes prior to approving. No records are available yet as to what was changed as a result of ministerial insistence, notwithstanding that it has long been established that ministerial direction on policy ought to have been carried out in writing!
Lawrence Gonzi’s proposal that his office should take effective overall control of land use planning policy is thus no big deal. It is no revolution but just the final stage in the process of placing responsibility for policy where it belongs, on the politician’s doorstep.
The politician has been effectively responsible for this since Mepa’s inception, although this was conveniently camouflaged as it paid to promote the perception that Mepa was responsible, even though it was not!
The role of the politician in land use planning is not limited to approval of policy.
It is the right time to ask whether it is reasonable for two members of Parliament to sit on the Mepa board and take part in its deliberations and decisions. I believe it is time to rethink the role of MPs in the land use planning process. Their role should, in my view, be one of monitoring and ensuring that Mepa follows policy and legislation and generally be subject to good governance. This function could be exercised through developing the current role of the Parliamentary Committee on Development Planning into one which continuously monitors Mepa and the minister responsible for land use planning on behalf of Parliament. Such a role could include the receipt of reports of the Planning Ombudsman, the examination of these reports and ensuring that, while the necessary decisions are taken expeditiously, those responsible for mal-administration are held to account.
The minister responsible for Mepa on behalf of the government appoints the members of the Mepa board and the Development Control Commissions.
He should exercise this responsibility subject to the parliamentary committee being in a position to vet the nominees through a public hearing organised with the specific intention to establish their suitability for the post. I am certain that some of those appointed to date would not have been found suitable for the post they were appointed to had the politicians’ choices been subject to parliamentary scrutiny.
The composition of the Mepa board should be revised to reflect its responsibilities. The EU Commission had remarked in a post-accession negotiation document that, when environmental responsibilities were added to those of land use, planning the composition of the Mepa board was not reconsidered in the light of its “new” responsibilities. Seven years down the line the situation is unchanged.
The proposal to have civil society, possibly through eNGOs (environmental NGOs), involved in the Mepa decision taking, while valid, needs some rethinking. It is not only politicians and practising professionals who may be subject to a conflict of interest. Even those active in eNGOs may at times have to face their own conflicts of interest. With this in mind I do not think it would be a good idea to appoint as a Mepa board member any current activist in a civil society organisation. I would prefer that the government appoints someone who, while enjoying the confidence of organised civil society, is not on the frontline.
Dr Gonzi is still insisting that Mepa should retain both its current functions, namely land use planning and environment protection. He has only brought forward one reason in justification: the resolution of conflicts between the two functions. Now this is a very myopic way of developing our institutional capability even in view of the public utterances in favour of sustainable development. There exist countless conflicts between land use planning and the protection of the environment. So far, few have surfaced as they are being resolved in-house by the muzzling of the environmental function of Mepa, which has not been allowed to develop in line with Malta’s responsibilities in a post-EU accession scenario.
The author, an architect and civil engineer, is the spokesman on sustainable development and local government of Alternattiva Demokratika – the Green Party in Malta.