L-iskandlu tal-Mistra min kixfu?

Matul dawn l-aħħar jiem intqal ħafna dwar min seta kien jew ma kienx dak li saffar is-suffara (il-whistleblower) dwar l-iskandlu tal-Mistra.

Issa qed jintqal li kien uffiċjal tal-PN li wassal il-kuntratt tal-Mistra lill-Alfred Sant.

Issa jiena ngħid il-verita’ thawwadt ftit għax Alfred Sant dan l-aħħar kien ċar ħafna dwar kif wasal għandu l-kuntratt.  Sant kien ikkwotat li qal hekk :

“Kieku ma kienx għal whistleblower kuraġġuż fis-sistema pubblika li tqażżes jara l-mod kif il-korruzzjoni u l-abbuż tal-poter kienu qed jintużaw lejliet l-elezzjoni bi sfreġju kbir għall-ambjent Malti, kieku l-istorja ma kinitx tasal għandi.”

Kieku jieqaf it-taħwid fit-tixrid tal-informazzjoni jkun ta’ ġid għal kulhadd!

L-aħħar punt. L-iskandlu ma nħoloqx bil-kuntratt. Il-kuntratt u l-qliegħ li kien ser ikun ġġenerat hu biss l-effett. L-abbuż sar fil-MEPA fil-mod kif ġie ipproċessat il-permess. Kif saru laqgħat bil-magħluq. Bi pressjoni u SMSs galore sakemm rakkomandazzjoni għar-rifjut ta’ permess ġiet mibdul biex il-permess inħareg. Ħalliha li wara l-elezzjoni a bażi ta’ rapport tal-Audit Officer tal-istess MEPA dan il-permess ġie irtirat.

Tajjeb li nżommu perspettiva realistika tal-affarijiet.

Il-Ġulġlien ta’ Lawrence Gonzi

 

Il-lejla smajt lill-Prim Ministru jgħid li persuna akkużat bl-agħar delitti kellu iktar possibilita li jiddefendi ruħu milli kellu Richard Cachia Caruana in konnessjoni mal-mozzjoni ppreżentata fil-Parlament kontra tiegħu.

Interessanti ħafna x’sentimenti għandu l-Onorevoli Lawrence Gonzi.

Taf li jiena hekk ukoll ħsibt meta fi tmiem April 2007 il-MEPA, responsabbilta politika ta’ Ministru fil-Kabinett tiegħu, iddeċidiet li ma tħallinix nibqa’ naħdem bħala uffiċjal investigattiv fl-uffiċċju tal-Uffiċjal tal-Verifika tal-MEPA.

Ħasra li dakinnhar Lawrence Gonzi ma kellux dawn is-sentimenti.

Taf li ġiebli qalbi ġulġliena?

Enough space exists for schools

 

The refusal by the Malta Environment and Planning Auth­ority’s board last week of the proposed extension to St Augustine’s school at Pietà is a decision that makes sense.

The Mepa board was correct in refusing the application on planning grounds even though there are valid educational reasons that justify the need for more space in the school. The proposal is not compatible with the residential area in which the school and the proposed extension are located. Considering an alternative site would be appropriate.

The application considered by Mepa was to add a primary school to the secondary school already existing on site. The extension was to have six floors, four of which above road level. The proposed development was to be constructed in what is now a garden area that serves as the neighbourhood’s lungs.

As stated by the Planning Directorate, the proposal for the extension, if approved, would have been a case of overdevelopment of the site.

The Church school authorities need to delve deeper in order to plan the educational services they provide after taking into consideration all the impacts of their proposals. Ignoring the impacts on the residents is not an option.

A school, irrespective of its catchment area, should be an integral part of the community where it is located. Ideally, it should be possible for its facilities to be utilised by the community after school hours. It, hence, follows that the manner in which schools are constructed and their relation to the community should be such that a mutually beneficial relationship between the school and the other local institutions can be nurtured.

It seems that this aspect has not been given much thought at St Augustine’s. The school seems to be detached from the community where it is sited. As a consequence, the development can also be viewed as a reduction in the quality of life of the community.

The Church school authorities cannot view St Augustine’s school on its own as an isolated case.

The expansion of the Minor Seminary at Tal-Virtù, for example, was carried out in contravention of the provisions of the Local Plan as detailed by the Mepa audit officer after carrying out a thorough investigation.

The Mepa audit officer had then pointed out that no analysis of traffic impacts had been carried out. He also noted that, with a rapidly declining birth rate, the construction of new schools, except as a replacement for existing inadequate buildings, can hardly be justified anywhere.

The issues to consider are various.

The impacts on third parties need to be given their due weight. Residents close to existing schools like St Augustine’s are already impacted by excessive traffic, even if this is for a limited time in the morning and early afternoon. This impact would increase 100 per cent if the proposed extension were approved, making matters considerably worse.

In addition, the use of facilities after hours when schools are insensitively located in residential areas will impact negatively the community in the area.

Increasing the height of existing buildings or constructing buildings higher than the existing residential surroundings will lead to shadowing of the low-lying residential property. Consequently, as a result of reducing the incidence of direct sunlight on existing residential property, one would be precluded from using equipment utilising solar energy to heat water or to generate electricity. This would signify increased electricity bills for the residents.

The proposed extension for St Augustine’s school at Pietà ignored all these issues.

If the Church schools, as a result of an increased demand, desire to expand it is pretty obvious that the resulting influx of students in these schools would signify a corresponding reduction in the population of state schools. Coupled with the reduction in birth rates, this would mean that there will be substantial empty space in some of the existing state primary schools in years to come.

This could indicate that, rather than developing extensions incompatible with existing residential areas or, worse, developing virgin land, a possible solution to the expansion requirements of schools such as St Augustine in Pietà would be to enter into an agreement with the state to ensure better utilisation of the buildings used as state primary/secondary schools where this is possible. If we agree that more than enough land has been developed in Malta, the redevelopment of some of these sites could be an option worth considering as an alternative to the development of virgin sites and/or the overdevelopment of other sites.

There are valid educational reasons which justify the increase in space that schools such as St Augustine’s are requesting. However, the right of Church schools to provide an education, separate and distinct from that provided by the state, does not, in any way, mean that the rights of residents should be ignored.

Fortunately, it is possible to look elsewhere. Better utilisation of sites already committed to educational use could solve the issue reasonably for all concerned: the schools, the students and the residents.

Published in The Times, February 11,  2012

Ir-Riżenja tiegħi mill-PN

Ftit iktar minn 4 snin ilu, wara 32 sena jiena irreżenjajt minn membru tal-Partit Nazzjonalista. 

L-ittra tiegħi ta’ riżenja wassalta jiena bl-idejn fl-uffiċċju tas-Segretarju Ġenerali tal-PN ta’ dak iż-żmien Joe Saliba nhar is-16 ta’ Jannar 2008. Għaddew 49 xahar u s’issa ħadd għadu ma wieġeb l-ittra ta’ riżenja.

L-uniku kumment kien għamlu Lawrence Gonzi waqt konferenza stampa. Ara 1 u 2.

Jiġifieri Franco Debono m’għandux għalfejn jistagħġeb li l-ittra tiegħu ta’ riżenja minn membru tal-PN baqgħu ma wieġbuhiex.

Forsi wieħed jifhem li għalkemm ir-riżenja tiegħi u r-riżenja ta’ Franco Debono minn membri tal-PN saru f’ċirkustanzi differenti l-motiv bażiku hu l-istess: il-PN immexxi minn Lawrence Gonzi mhux biss jiddefendi lil min jiżbalja, talli jippremjah. Imbagħad ma min jagħmel xogħolu jimxi bil-gambetti.

49 xahar ilu lil Joe Saliba jiena kont għidtlu dan li ġej:

“Meta sseħibt fil-Partit Nazzjonalista kont nidentifika ruħi bla diffikulta miegħu.  Iżda illum ilni żmien nagħmel sforz nistaqsi lili nnifsi jekk il-PN għadux l-istess Partit li jiena sseħibt fih fis-snin 70. Qiegħed nasal għall-konkluzjoni illi kieku kelli nagħmel l-għażla illum ma kontx nagħżel li nissieħeb.    

Għal dan hemm bosta raġunijiet. Prinċipalment (iżda mhux biss) l-attitudni leġġera li bih il-Gvern immexxi mill-PN (kif ukoll il-PN innifsu) ħares lejn w aġixxa fil-konfront ta’ min mexa ħażin fil-ħajja pubblika.

Fil-konfront ta’ min mexa ħażin kontinwament isir attentat biex jinsatru u jitmewwtu l-affarijiet. Iżda imbagħad fil-konfront tal-ħidma tiegħi fil-MEPA jiena ġejt ostakolat milli nkompli l-ħidma li kont qed inwettaq fl-Uffiċċju tal-Verifika (Audit Office) b’elf skuża. Ir-raġuni vera ma tissemma qatt : li nibtet intolleranza għall-kritika u għal min kapaċi jaħseb b’moħħu. Min ma jittollerax il-ġbid tal-ispag qiegħed kontinwament jiġi imwarrab.”

X’inbidel mill-2008 lil hawn? Minn dak li qiegħed jgħid Franco Debono is-sitwazzjoni marret għall-agħar. 

Il-PN ma jridx jitgħallem u ma jinbidel qatt. Qabad it-triq tan-niżla.

Beyond the Rhetorical declarations

The fact that a common vocabulary of environmental and related terms has been adopted ac­ross the political divide may lead some to the mistaken conclusion there exists a widespread agreement as to environmental objectives to be attained. However, while a common vocabulary is in existence through the use of the same terms and expressions, we sometimes seem to refer to dictionaries that vary substantially. As a minimum, they may be said to be substantially different editions!

Consider sustainable development. The term is ubiquitous but there is a wide range of and, at times, conflicting views as to what constitutes sustainable development.

When this Parliament met, at its inaugural sitting, the President as head of state and on behalf of the government read what is known as the Speech from the Throne, that is the government’s political objectives and programme it intended to fulfil while in office. It was then stated that: “The government’s plans and actions are to be underpinned by the notion of sustainable development of the economy, of society and of the environment. When making decisions today, serious consideration will be given to the generations of tomorrow.

“Sustainable development has three main dimensions: economic, social and environmental. Our challenge is to ensure continuous economic development, promoted by education, social development, with particular attention to environmental protection. When we evaluate our activities in view of these three interrelated dimensions, we would be placing every person at the heart of the government’s actions.”

The notions of sustainable development the President put forward on behalf of the government were the minimum possible. They are reasonable as a first step as they contain the seminal ideas that should form the building blocks of a strategy for ending business as usual and moving towards a path eventually leading to a sustainable society.

Economic, social and environmental dimensions are rightly defined as being interrelated. I would go further by stating the social and environmental impacts we must continuously address are the result of the manner in which the economy has been permitted to operate.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating. The government’s commitment towards sustainable development is not to be gauged by its rhetoric but through its actions.

The Commission for Sustainable Development set up in terms of the Environment Protection Act has not met for more than four years, since December 2006. Then it had approved the final version of the National Sustainable Development Strategy, which it submitted to Cabinet. A primary function of the commission now is to oversee the implementation of the Sustainable Development Strategy for the Maltese Islands, approved by Cabinet prior to the March 2008 election and having a 10-year lifespan (2007-2016).

This fact on its own speaks volumes as to the government’s unwritten policies. It is in line with the abolition of the Commission for Sustainable Development by the Conservative/Liberal coalition government in the UK as a result of its bonfire of quangos. The UK government too describes itself as being the greenest ever. Actions, however, speak louder than words. Lip service is clearly the name of the game.

Instead of honouring its commitments and ensuring that each one of the 20 priority areas identified in the Sustainable Development Strategy are implemented throughout the lifetime of this Administration, a free-for-all has ensued.

How can a government committed to sustainable development justify an administrative set-up that subjugates responsible environmental management to the whims of those who still consider the building construction industry as a prime economic mover on these islands?

The Dwejra debacle, which will, hopefully, soon enter into its final stages, has confirmed once more that, within the set-up of the Malta Environment and Planning Authority, the Environment Protection Directorate may be consulted, yet, it is set aside when decisions are taken.

What is the purpose of drawing up local plans to regulate development if these are repeatedly ignored as has been shown once more by the Mepa audit officer in his report on the extension of the Church-run Seminary at Tal-Virtù?

Why speak of eco-Gozo yet issue a development permit for a Church-run cemetery, which is in the process of completely ruining a rainwater harvesting infrastructure that has served the agricultural community at Nadur’s Għajn Qasab for about three centuries?

Government actions speak louder than words. As aptly stated by Marco Cremona (The Times, January 18) we are witnessing mixed messages and conflicting policies.

There is no coordination of environment policy across government. This is in part the result of the abandonment of the sustainable development infrastructure. It is clear there is no one who has the ability to enforce environment policy throughout the government.

Late in 2010, Parliament approved a motion moved by the Prime Minister to introduce a Sustainable Development Bill, which has been given a first reading. The political will to act is, however, nowhere in sight.

Published in The Times of Malta on January22, 2011

AD comments on the Dwejra report of the MEPA Audit Officer

AD has published the report which the MEPA Audit Officer finalised after an AD request for an investigation of MEPA’s processing of the application relative to the Dwejra protected site.

Carmel Cacopardo AD Spokesman on Sustainable Development and Local Government stated that the report shows once more that the Environment Protection Directorate has been set aside and practically ignored in the whole process. The fact that the application was processed by the Planning Directorate with minor and informal roles for the Environment Protection Directorate demonstrates how the environment role of MEPA has been reduced  to one of mere decoration.

Carmel Cacopardo added that it is worrying that the MEPA Audit Officer has concluded that the Environment Protection Directorate has abdicated its responsibilities to the Planning Directorate. This is the logical consequence of years of ignoring by MEPA of its environmental responsibilities. This is also reflected in the report’s conclusion that the Environment Protection Directorate has failed to screen the application to establish the impact of the proposed activity and this in direct contrast to the guidelines issued by the EU on the implementation of the Habitats Directive transposed onto the Maltese statute book as per Legal Notice 311 of 2006.

AD’s chairperson, Michael Briguglio added  that the report concluded that MEPA was aware at least since the 14th October 2010 that the applicant was not observing the conditions which it had established yet it remained static and apprehensive as it wanted to avoid litigation and action for damages for possible disruption of filming activities. This is grossly irresponsible and AD expects an explanation from the MEPA CEO who needs to also explain why no monitoring was carried out when the permit clearly explained that this was to be carried out at the applicant’s expense. The substantial sums of money being paid by the taxpayer to finance MEPA  are not resulting in responsible management added Michael Briguglio.

Finally AD insists that Mr Austin Walker as one of the most paid CEOs in the public sector does not only owe the public an explanation but he must also shoulder responsibility for MEPA’s inability to react.

MEPA Audit Office Dwejra Report

Mental Gymnastics at MEPA

Over the past two years, three special areas of conservation were in the news: Mistra (Spin Valley disco), Baħrija Valley and, now, Dwejra. Next in the news will be the White Rocks sports development, bordering Pembroke.

The Director for Environment Protection at the Malta Environment and Planning Authority is on record as saying that an SAC should not be “a keep-out zone”. To my knowledge, no one has made such an assertion. It is, however, to be underlined that permissible activities in and around SACs are limited in terms of the EU Habitats Directive.

Decisions of the Environment Protection Directorate relative to SACs need to be adequately motivated. This is unfortunately not always apparent. What is also very clear at this stage is that the Environment Protection Directorate seems to have been kept out of the process leading to the original decision on the use of the Dwejra site, only to be pushed onto the frontline at the eleventh hour when a damage limitation exercise was embarked upon.

The Habitats Directive is very clear. As a rule, it permits activities on and in the vicinity of SACs only if these activities are required for the purpose of managing the site. Other activities may also be permitted but when this is the case they are subject to stringent procedures and conditions.

The Habitats Directive (transposed into Maltese legislation by Legal Notice 311 of 2006) may permit an activity in or in the vicinity of an SAC provided the Environment Protection Directorate determines it is not detrimental to the site either on its own or cumulatively with other activities.

However, in so determining, the Environment Protection Directorate has to carefully consider the proposed activity and correlate it to all the characteristics of the SAC. In particular, it should also consider what is known as the “corridor effect”. That is, whether an activity in or outside an SAC is likely to have an impact on any area of the SAC or another protected area in the vicinity, say a marine conservation area as is the case in Dwejra.

An SAC should be considered as a whole and should not be parcelled into areas where activity is permissible and others where it is not, as Mepa seems to be suggesting. Malta cannot go on with declaring areas to be SACs only to subsequently commence mental gymnastics in order to invent exceptions whenever the need to justify something crops up.

Analysing statements made after the Dwejra saga, it is clear Mepa failed to do the above. By stating the site was “bare rock”, worse still, by stating there is no eco-system to protect (even if this absurd statement was later retracted), Mepa in my view abdicated its responsibilities as the competent authority entrusted by the EU to act on its behalf to manage SACs, which are today part of an EU Natura 2000 network.

At least two parallel investigations are under way. One by the Mepa audit officer, the other by independent experts to scientifically examine and report on any impacts on the site as a result of the permit issued by Mepa.

So far, the applicant (Fire and Blood Productions) and the sub-contractor have been censured for not observing the permit conditions imposed by Mepa. However, no official comment as to whether Mepa overstepped its brief in issuing the Dwejra permit has yet been made. This I submit is the primary pending matter as, in my view, Mepa should never have authorised the placing of sand at Dwejra.

Earlier this year, in an article entitled Land Speculation At White Rocks (July 7) I had written about another SAC, that at Pembroke. The proposal there does not involve the temporary placing of sand but the development of a sports complex in an area which is very close to the Pembroke SAC. In view of conflicting information it is not yet clear how and to what extent this proposal impacts the Pembroke SAC.

After considering the manner in which SACs have been mismanaged by Mepa in Mistra, Baħrija, Dwejra and, now, possibly Pembroke it is legitimate to ask why the government has bothered to declare them as areas worthy of protection.

It is clear so far the government is only interested in paying lip service to such issues and, subsequently, to engage in mental gymnastics to justify anything.

As stated by Parliamentary Secretary Mario de Marco (The Cost Of Decisions That Count, The Times, November 27) one should not use this serious incident to discount the validity of a number of environmental initiatives. However, if the government wants to be taken seriously on environmental issues it must put its house in order. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be a priority.

 

Published in The Times of Malta, Saturday December 4, 2010

AD asks MEPA Audit Officer to investigate Dwejra mauling

Following a request by AD MEPA has released a copy of the consent conditions for the use of Dwejra and other sites  in connection with “The Game of Thrones” teleserial shootout. AD is releasing the a copy of the Consent Conditions.

In the meantime Carmel Cacopardo AD spokesman on Sustainable Development and Local Government has written to the MEPA Audit Officer requesting that he investigates the whole matter.

In the written request Cacopardo on behalf of AD has stated that :
“It is inconceivable how MEPA could have issued any kind of permit for activities at Dwejra in view of the strict rules imposed by the  EU Habitats Directive which has been transposed into Maltese legislation.

In my opinion the Environment Protection Directorate of MEPA as the Competent Authority in terms of the Habitats Directive has permitted activities which it is duty bound to prevent from happening.

You are kindly requested to investigate the manner in which MEPA has handled this incident through both the actions and inactions of the Planning Directorate and the Environment Protection Directorate in MEPA.”Consent Conditions

Rubbishing of auditors by gonzipn will stop !

Some good news from Parliament.

The Times today reported that in Parliament yesterday, during the debate on a motion of no confidence in the Minister of Education Dolores Cristina, the Prime Minister stated that : 

“There must be instilled a culture of respect for auditors. Their criticism should be accepted and not fought. In the public sector, such audits also served to have more efficiency and value for money. It was important that internal and external auditors’ suggestions were heeded and acted on without delay.”

Some good news at last which contrasts with the manner in which government led by gonzipn has treated the Auditor General, the Ombudsman and the MEPA Audit Officer.

The rubbishing of audtors by gonzipn will now stop! Well, its never too late to learn from your mistakes!

Meetings Behind Closed Doors

published on November 28, 2009

by Carmel Cacopardo

________________________________________________________

 

The debate on the functioning of the Mepa audit office has identified a number of contentious issues. Foremost among them is whether land use planning decision-makers are entitled to meet behind closed doors with applicants/objectors as part of the process leading to a decision.

Those who insist that Mepa decision-makers are so entitled have clutched to Magistrate Edwina Grima’s decision of October 28, as if it were the proverbial straw. They conveniently ignore however that Magistrate Grima qualified her decision by stating that it is not an examination as to whether the Development Planning Act was observed or not but one as to whether the criminal charges brought forward by the police were proven.

Land use planning is not just about the issuing of development permits. It is an exercise whereby the community decides the manner in which development is permissible, if at all. This signifies that the decision-makers, in arriving at a conclusion, must not only consider the interests of the applicant for a development permit.

The community has the right to be heard at all stages of the decision-making process irrespective of whether it formally submits an objection to a proposal for development. It also has the right to monitor proceedings, in particular as to the information fed into the decision-taking process.

The Development Planning Act (DPA) of 1992 accepts the important role of the community in the decision-making process. Amendments throughout the years have sought to reinforce the procedures through which the community can ensure that the decision-making process is fair and reasonable.

One such procedure is that provided for in sub-section five of section 13 of the DPA. The crucial first words of the said sub-section are fundamental: “The meetings of the commission shall be open to the public.” This important statement is qualified later in the said sub-section by the authorisation to hold deliberations “in private”, that is no one except members of the Development Control Commission (DCC) and its staff can be present.

The members of the DCC have just one function: to sit as members of the commission and decide on applications in respect of which the Director of Planning, through his staff, has submitted recommendations. The DCC members have no role outside the meetings of the DCC in the same manner that a judge or a magistrate has no role outside the courtroom.

The point has been raised by Mepa chairman Austin Walker in an article titled (To Meet Or Not To Meet? (November 10) that it is perfectly legitimate for the decision-maker to seek additional information, which assists him/her in understanding the matter under consideration and, thereby, leading to a decision based on better or more accurate information.

Mr Walker knows that the ends do not justify the means. While I do not quarrel with the objective of seeking additional information where it is considered necessary, this must be carried out in a manner that is consistent with the provisions of both the letter and the spirit of the DPA. That meetings of the DCC must be held in public is fundamental in identifying the correct methods to employ in receiving information. This, to my mind, means that the decision-maker must at all times ensure that there is no direct contact with an interested party outside the formal DCC meetings open to the public. The decision-maker must be aware of the quasi-judicial role he/she is carrying out. Meeting behind closed doors with one of the parties does not contribute to ensuring that impartiality is the order of the day. It encourages the perception of both partiality and the existence of sinister motives irrespective of whether these exist or not.

How can the decision-maker ensure that the information received does not prejudice the interests of the community in general or specific objectors in particular when these are generally not aware of what went on behind closed doors? On the other hand, receipt of additional information during a public session would ensure that the information submitted is subject to public scrutiny. The community has the right to communicate its version, thereby countering, if necessary, the additional information submitted.

In a legal system based on the rule of law this is a principle of natural justice, which, in legal jargon, is referred to as audi alteram partem – listen to the other party. The practice of Mepa decision-makers meeting behind closed doors ignores this basic legal principle enshrined in the provisions of the DPA when it provides that the meetings of the commission have to be held in public.

It was on this basis that reports issued by the Mepa audit office of which I formed part during 2004-7 has continuously emphasised that meetings of Mepa decision-makers with interested parties behind closed doors are illegal.