MEPA and the politicians

times_of_malta196x703July 25, 2009

by Carmel Cacopardo


Il-Parlament Malti

Il-Parlament Malti

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.


Baħrija Hysterics


The on-going debate about the Baħrija Farmhouse to-be is at times verging on the hysterical, on both sides of the debate.

There are two opposing views : the first is that which essentially does not want any development Outside the Development Zone (ODZ). Dr Gonzi’s statement that “ODZ is ODZ” encapsulates this view. The second view is that the development of property is in itself an enhancement and should be encouraged, ignoring the “small irritations” like endemic flora and fauna. After all, it is argued, private property is just that private. You can (or should be able) to do whatever you like, it is argued !

I do not subscribe to either of the two views.

In fact the MEPA reform document published by government is slightly more realistic, advocating as it does the careful examination of all policies and the weeding out of those which are unnecessary or undesirable. Obviously the debate as to which of the existing policies needs to be changed is a pleasure yet to come and I will limit this contribution to the policies as existing today.

Maltese planning policies are flexible but unfortunately they are interpreted very rigidly. As such whilst development ODZ is a more delicate operation than building within the development zone Maltese planning policies permit development outside the development zone in particular circumstances which are well defined. This is as it should be.

Whilst the layman’s point of departure in considering whether to apply for a development permit such as that at the Baħrija valley (Wied Marcia) is understandably the existence on site of a structure (or even one close by) even if it is one in a state of dilapidation, the professional proceeds otherwise.

The point of departure of the professional is the fact that the site in Wied Marcia lies in a valley which is an Area of Ecological Importance (Grade 1) and a Special Area of Conservation. In addition it is afforded protection in terms of the Structure Plan which prohibits development in valleys.

Decisions in respect of other ODZ sites are not necessarily relevant as each ODZ site has to be dealt with on its own merits in view of the fact that in many cases site specific policies are applicable.

The above is in simple language the Scerri Baħrija case. It could have easily been avoided as the rules are clear.

The Reform of MEPA


Having seen the MEPA reform document as proposed by government I think that it is a positive effort which can generate a fruitful discussion. A number of positive proposals are being put forward. Other proposals should possibly be reconsidered as a result of the public discussion on the proposals which will now commence.

Whilst it has to be stated that MEPA was never a policy maker (it always drafted  policies for the consideration of government) I consider that the detachment of MEPA from policy formulation/drafting is a positive proposal. Likewise the shedding by MEPA of responsibilities which can now be shouldered by other bodies set up since 1992 (the year the Planning Authority was set up)  is a positive development.

I applaude the insistence of the reform document on the need to channel negotiations on proposals for development at Directorate level and away from the Development Control Commission.

However limiting the DCC to a Chairman and two members could be too small in size especially in respect of the DCC dealing with UCAs, ODZ and major projects. The latter DCC would require expertise in more areas that could reasonably be covered by three persons.

The proposal to appoint a full-time DCC has its merits in addressing conflicts of interest of current part-time DCC members who are practising their profession or other calling. The basic issue of the manner of selecting of DCC/Board members has however not been addressed by the reform document.

AD had proposed in the run-up to the 2008 General Elections that whilst government should retain the power to appoint the MEPA Board and DCC members these should be subject to a public hearing by a Parliamentary Committee to ascertain their suitability, a procedure similar to that adopted by the US Senate to vet high level appointments by the US President. All the appointments to the DCC and the MEPA Board are appointments of considerable importance which in my view merit such a procedure.

Government is proposing the presence of a representative of Environmental NGOs  on the MEPA Board. I do not doubt the good intentions behind such a proposal however I think that there are better ways of involving environmentalists in the decision taking  structures of MEPA.  Already in 2006 the Chairman of an eNGO was appointed to the MEPA Board, but he resigned not much later. Even officials of eNGOs  can have conflicts of interests between their duties as representatives of the eNGOs they lead on the one hand and as members of decision taking structures on the other hand. The two functions are oftenly in conflict.

Government is insisting on retaining the environment and land use planning as part of the same authority. AD has expressed reservations in the past on such an administrative solution. These  reservations have been based on the limited resources which in the past have placed the Environment Directorate of MEPA in a position of severe weakness in the MEPA structures, in particular in a position subservient to Land Use Planning.

These are my first reactions.  There are other areas in the document which merit an in-depth discussion but it is considered that the above highlights the major areas of concern.

Beijing’s bicycles

A comment in the Times online relative to my article published yesterday reminded me of the following article which I published in 2007.


published in the Times August 11, 2007

by Carmel Cacopardo


A popular song points out that “there are nine million bicycles in Beijing”. Unfortunately, the advent of “progress” in Beijing is also affecting their use as cars are taking over. Ten to 15 years ago Beijing’s Tiananmen Square was still quite a sight with interminable rows of bicycles in their racks awaiting their users’ return close to the same spots which had seen military tanks squash the students’ revolt in June 1989.

Locally, we can easily do away with the use of a car when travelling short distances. Yet, notwithstanding, bicycle use in Malta is surprisingly limited. It is unfortunately not part of our way of life.

The bicycle’s benefits are multifold: physical fitness, cleaner air to breath , quieter and safer roads and a healthier balance of payments through the use of less fossil fuels and cars! It is a sustainable means of transport.

According to ADT (the Transport Authority), only 0.3 per cent of all trips in Malta are carried out through the use of a bicycle. ADT has in the recent past introduced bicycle lanes in a number of localities. In addition, within the context of the Park and Ride Project between Blata-l-Bajda and Valletta, commuters have been given the option of using a bicycle instead of making use of the mini-bus service. The number making use of this option is apparently very small.

ADT’s initiative of introducing bicycle lanes was appropriate and could easily be extended. On its own it is, however, insufficient. It requires a coordinated effort involving the ministries responsible for sports, health, environment and local councils in addition to the ministry responsible for transport. As a first step they should get their heads together to encourage cycling as a sport, simultaneously encouraging us to use bicycles to improve our health, thereby reducing pollution and laying the foundations for a sustainable transport policy even at a local level. It should not involve any substantial expense. Local councils could take the initiative through drafting and implementing a local environmental programme of action within the framework of Local Agenda 21 which 15 years after the Rio Earth Summit is still missing from our local policies. Very little information on cycling in Malta is available on the web. An exception being ADT which has posted an informative feature on its introduction of cycle lanes and also comments on the issue in its 2006 Annual Report.

The National Sustainability Strategy (still in draft form) recognises the need to promote a sustainable transport system. Land-use activities, states the Sustainable Development Strategy should “be located in such a way as to reduce the need for travel or such that travel can be carried out by transport modes with reduced environmental impacts” (paragraph 3.1.9). Cycling is one such transport mode.

Encouraging cycling is a challenge not just for central government but also for local councils. Especially those councils which are within a short distance of each other. They can cooperate and encourage cycling instead of the use of cars when travelling short distances. They have, however, to ensure that cyclists are not exposed to unnecessary dangers when on the road.

Our roads and streets have been designed more for the car and less for the human person. We need to claim them back for our use. More of our roads and streets need to be off limits to cars. Our local councils should claim back on our behalf streets and roads such that together with our children we can walk or cycle without fear and be able to breathe some fresh air in our urban environment. This is an area in which neighbouring local councils can cooperate through developing a common local transport policy.

Improvements in our quality of life will be just one of the results! We will certainly not have nine million bicycles on our roads, but a substantial number just the same.

Piano says : leave your cars outside

times_of_malta196x703published July 4, 2009

by Carmel Cacopardo




Renzo Piano

Renzo Piano’s proposals, which were launched last week, will remove the 1965 City Gate. Any proposal to substitute the 1965 Valletta entrance would be an improvement!

The debate in the newspapers and online is generally focusing on the open air theatre with some commenting also on the loss of Freedom Square as an open space.

Through the removal of the present City Gate and presenting us with an opening in the bastions, Mr Piano is expressing a change in the function of the Valletta fortifications: from keeping the enemy outside to inviting visitors within.

As a direct consequence, Mr Piano makes a bolder statement: overlying the 1965 City Gate there is a road. Used by a substantial amount of cars entering Valletta, this road will cease to exist as Mr Piano proposes its removal together with the 1965 gate. Visitors to Valletta will thus be asked to leave their cars outside the city! It is an invitation to refrain from polluting the air in Valletta, making one’s visit a pleasanter experience. This conforms to the other green statements which Mr Piano makes in his proposals. I believe we should accept Mr Piano’s request and extend his invitation to Valletta’s visitors.

Linking this to other aspects of the project, I submit that Mr Piano’s proposals necessitate a revisiting of transport policies.

On the one hand, the Central Bank route into Valletta would cease to exist. Traffic will have to enter through St Mark Street or West Street as well as through the Mediterranean Conference Centre area.

Mr Piano’s proposal gobbles up a significant parking space. Parking space in Valletta has been diminishing gradually since the pedestrianisation of Merchants Street, South Street and the surrounding areas. This reduction of Freedom Square as a parking space necessarily means that Mr Piano is proposing that there should be a further reduction of car access into Valletta. I do not know whether the government will accept this but I hope that it will.

An acceleration of the public transport reform is a necessary consequence. The public needs to be encouraged to make more use of public transport, which it will if public transport is efficient. Efficient public transport is the best guarantee that a reduction of cars on the road will take place. If fewer cars can enter Valletta as a result of Mr Piano’s proposals, the urgent conclusion of the public transport reform is a must.

Secondly, alternative means of transport need to be further encouraged. Valletta can be easily accessed by sea. But for sea transport to be an effective means of access, circular public transport around Valletta needs to be organised regularly and efficiently.

Valletta can also be accessed by bicycles but for this to happen the bicycle lane mess around the island needs to be sorted out. Bicycle owners would also need suitable places to leave their bicycles when not in use: there aren’t any such facilities in Valletta as yet. In addition, it should be possible for bicycle users to resort to other means of transport for part of their journeys.

So far, transport issues have hardly been mentioned in the discussion on Mr Piano’s proposals. The public and the experts have concentrated on other aspects, primarily the Opera House site. Although the Opera House proposal can be improved without affecting the rest of the project, Mr Piano’s plans of retaining the ruins of the Opera House and developing them into an open-air theatre is still challenging. It can be taken up by the cultural community, which will have another site dedicated to cultural activities at a par with those found in other European countries.

Notwithstanding the contrasting views expressed, NGOs and those taking part in the discussion are doing a fine job. Discussing Valletta’s future is not the exclusive prerogative of experts, as Valletta belongs to all of us. In addition to being more tolerant of the views of others there is one point which all of us must bear in mind: the discussion cannot go on forever. A decision has to be taken.

Mr Piano’s proposal with its various elements is, in my view, the best proposal made so far integrating the city entrance with upper Valletta, leading the visitor into a rejuvenated Valletta. An upgrading of the bus terminus should be next in line for treatment!

Mr Pianos’ proposal has to be seen as a whole. An analysis of the spaces created clearly demonstrates that Mr Piano sought to link his proposal with other initiatives already taken or in hand, notably the rehabilitated St James Cavalier.

One hopes that Mr Piano’s proposal will be adopted by the government without substantial changes except for the possible improvement to the Opera House site proposal. Hopefully, Mr Piano’s proposals will be completed on time and within the allocated budget.