When Malta’s EU accession negotiations approached the final stages, a merger of the then Planning Authority and the Department for the Environment was announced.
While the merger was the right thing to do, it was done in a hurry and as a result, an organised Planning Directorate overshadowed an understaffed Environment Directorate. A number of civil servants employed in the former Environment Department had refused to go along to MEPA, thus further diluting the newly established Environment Directorate. This was further exacerbated by long spells during which the post of Environment Director was vacant. This did not involve weeks, but years. Currently, in fact, there is no Environment Director in place- the post having been vacated around two years ago.
The Environment Department was then one of the youngest departments in the civil service which, overnight, as a result of EU accession had to shoulder responsibility for a substantial portion of the EU acquis for which it was largely not equipped. The situation has slightly improved over the years. The previous administration declared many times that it would bridge the gap in human resources, but, unfortunately, it never lived up to its declarations. As a result, the Environment Directorate was, and still is, overshadowed. In addition, to make matters worse, the consolidated authority was (and still is) led by a Board in which environmental knowledge was (very) scarce. This was the perfect recipe for a good initiative not to yield any results by design.
Malta requires more consolidation of environmental governance, not its fragmentation. Further consolidation will increase the chances of being more effective in coordinating related areas of policy: land-use planning and environment protection are two such areas. Fragmentation, on the other hand, increases ineffectiveness. However, mergers require commitment and resources – both of which have been manifestly lacking.
The potential fruits of the merger would only have been reaped if the consolidated MEPA had been led by an Environment Directorate. Unfortunately, it was designed differently: a combination of bad design and an absence of good faith.
The solution to this problem is not to reverse the merger but rather to reverse the roles of land-use planning and environment protection in a consolidated MEPA, meaning that land-use planning should be subjected to rigorous environmental control. Unfortunately, this was never on the cards, nor is it contemplated in the de-merger bills. The agenda of the parliamentary political parties has always been very clear: to ensure that land-use planning is subject to the least possible environmental controls in the interests of the development lobby.
This is the elephant in the room. The PN in government implemented this objective by a merger of a highly organised Planning Directorate with a weak but dedicated Environment Department. Labour has opted to achieve the same objective through fragmentation.
At the end of the day, the government’s misguided de-merger will not cause additional damage: it will be more of the same, as we have been accustomed to throughout the years. The attainment of the full potential of the newly-created authorities will be postponed until such time as they are inevitably reunited under the leadership of a revamped Environment Directorate.
In the meantime, other important issues in the projected legislation can be focused upon. The manner of appointment of boards and top officers of the newly created authorities is one such issue.
Having the Minister’s trust is not a sufficient requirement justifying appointments to boards and authorities – and this not just with reference to appointments of an environmental nature. It would be appropriate if the competence of those selected for office is scrutinised in public. Other democracies, the United States of America for example, regularly use public hearings as an instrument for carrying out such public scrutiny for a number of appointments of national importance.
In its 2013 election manifesto, Alternattiva Demokratika specifically proposed the adoption of this method in order to examine the government’s nominees to public bodies. In particular, AD proposed that government nominees to land-use planning, environment and resource-management boards (including directors and CEOs) should not take up their post until Parliament’s Environment and Land Use Planning Committee had examined such nominations in public and signified its consent thereto. Such a public hearing should be carried out to establish whether the nominees are suitable for the posts to which they have been nominated.
Were nominees required to subject themselves to such a public hearing, Malta would definitely have a much better crop of administrators than that which it has been accustomed over the years. This would also reinforce the notion that administrators of public authorities are, at the end of the day, accountable to the whole country and not just to the government Minister who nominates them for the post.
The merger of land-use planning and environment protection at MEPA should be strengthened by ensuring that the Environment Directorate calls the shots. It is, however, equally important to ensure that those nominated to lead the authority (irrespective of whether we have one or more) are suitable for running the show. Parliament should thus reclaim back its powers and vet the government’s nominees in public. When this has been done, we will be able to state that we have commenced down the path to improving environmental governance. Otherwise, it will be more of the same for many years to come.
published in The Malta Independent on Sunday – 12 July 2015