More Voodoo Planning

The proposed Mepa legislation fails to address basic issues bedevilling land use planning and environment protection. It is basically a consolidation of current legislation with some amendments. Important provisions in the Environment Protection Act, such as reference to the National Commission for Sustainable Development, are being repealed. While acknowledging that they may crop up in other legislation, the government has not to date publicly indicated its intentions.

After almost two years of consultations I expected something quite different. There has been no attempt at ensuring that appointees to the Mepa board are at least conversant with planning and environmental issues. If past appointments are any indication of what to expect we will have more voodoo planners. Appointing one Mepa board member from an environmental NGO area of influence will not solve anything. We have been there before with the appointee resigning after a few weeks.

Appointment of architects to boards and commissions is no guarantee that Mepa will function within current policy and legislation. Censurable decisions have been taken by DCCs chaired by architects. Some resigned their posts as a result.

There will always be those who err. In addition to human error, some will err as a result of incompetence and others as a result of pressures applied. In the past, some members of the DCC and the Mepa board have taken up the practice of voodoo planning: discarding their role of applying policy, opting instead to create it.

This is the result of not being aware of their role and not being familiar with planning and environmental policy.

Voodoo planning is also a reaction to pressures applied or perceived in the so-called closed-door meetings. Mepa’s executive committee, for example, has developed the role of advising DCCs as to the manner of deciding particular applications. This unacceptable intrusion into the DCCs competence does not feature in the proposed legislation. It is to date left unregulated.

Through its Select Committee, Parliament should develop the role of a permanent monitor: a spotlight focused on Mepa. It should also have a role in screening the government’s nominees to the Mepa board and DCCs, which screening can be carried out through subjecting such nominees to public hearings. Such hearings can weed out most undesirable appointees. Those with a glaring conflict of interest and those whose only qualification is their political allegiance would be the first casualties. A system through which Parliament’s Select Committee screens potential appointees can also nudge the government into discarding the tradition as a result of which competent individuals not close to the government of the day are not considered for appointment.

MPs should not be able to decide specific planning or environmental applications. Hence, I query whether Parliament should continue appointing two of its members to sit as voting members of the Mepa board. MPs would fulfil their role as representatives of the community much better if they develop Parliament’s monitoring role. Parliaments in other jurisdictions function very effectively in this manner.

Up till 2002, the government was still considering the setting up of a separate authority dealing exclusively with the environment and had, in fact, commissioned and received draft legislation on the subject.

The issue of having two separate authorities, one dealing with land use planning and the other with environmental protection, is not one of principle. It is rather one of ensuring that the environment protection function is not stifled as has been done to date. The environment protection voice has been continuously suffocated, available resources withheld or diverted, with appointments to sensitive environment posts being dished out to persons whose competence and experience was in other fields, primarily land use planning. Coupled with the appointment of boards and commissions insensitive to environmental issues, these attitudes have led to the current state of affairs.

If the government persists in its policy of retaining the environment protection function within Mepa, the least it can do is to embark on recruiting qualified personnel at all levels, thereby reversing the accumulated negative legacy. This includes the need to appoint more members of the Mepa board equipped with a suitable knowledge of environmental protection issues.

A positive aspect of the proposed reform is that the government has re-dimensioned its role in forward planning. While rightly affirming that policy decisions are the role of the politician, Mepa’s role in policy formulation has been retained. In addition, the Ombudsman’s comments on fine-tuning of the consultation process as explained in his report dated April 2007, titled The Duty To Consult And The Right To Be Consulted, have been taken on board.

Land use planning and environmental protection will always be controversial. These are surely not the paths to popularity. Parliament needs to take a more active role as an overseer. While the government has a role in leading the way, Parliament has the duty to ensure that the country’s resources are used in a sustainable manner, holding the government to account in the process.