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

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Gonzi u l-White Rocks: l-interessi personali u l-profitti

 

Lawrence Gonzi kien rappurtat dalgħodu mit-Times li wieġeb għall-kritika ta’ Paul Abela (ex Sindku Nazzjonalista tas-Swieqi u illum President tal-GRTU) dwar il-proġett tal-White Rocks billi qal li dan (Abela) għandu interessi personali u interessi ta’ profitt u li l-kritika tiegħu għall-proġett tal-White Rocks hi motivata minn dan.

Mur obsor, kemm hu għaref il-Prim ! Mhux ovvja li min (flimkien ma ħaddieħor) tefa’ offerta li wara proċess twil ta’ negozjati ġiet aċċettata jfittex li jħares l-interessi tiegħu.

Paul Abela fl-artiklu tiegħu  ippubblikat fit-Times of Malta tal-14 ta’ Lulju 2010 qal li l-Gvern kien għadu marbut mal-consortium bl-isem Costa San Andrea li miegħu kienu saru negozjati wara sejħa għall-offerti fl-1999.

Bil-mod kif qed jitkellem Lawrence Gonzi qiesu li dawk li magħhom qiegħed jinnegozja l-Gvern tiegħu ġejjin jagħmlu l-karita’. Dawn għall-profitti ukoll ġejjin, profitti li biex jimmaterjalizzaw talbu art li fuqha jkunu jistgħu jinbnew 300 appartament. Il-fondi ġġenerati mill-bejgħ tal-appartamenti jagħmlu tajjeb kemm għall-profitti kif ukoll għall-ispejjes biex jinbena dak li Lawrence Gonzi qed isejjaħlu kumpless sportiv, imma li fir-realta’ għadu mhux ċar eżatt x’ser ikun.

Il-mistoqsijiet mhux imwieġba mill-Gvern ta’ Gonzi qed jiżdiedu, u issa magħhom żdiedu dawk ta’ Paul Abela : għadu marbut mal-consortium Costa San Andrea jew le ?  

Għal uħud mill-mistoqsijiet l-oħra, ara ukoll fuq dan il-blog :

 3 ta’ Lulju                 Land Speculation at White Rocks

13 ta’ Ġunju                 The White Rocks Project

Land Speculation at White Rocks

Having first class sports facilities in Malta is an objective which everyone shares. Hence the point at issue, in my view, is not whether a sports complex should be developed but how this can be done and the manner in which it should be financed.

The government has opted for direct negotiations with the selected partners. Was it right in directly selecting the proposed developers and negotiating away from the spotlight of tendering rules and procedures which a normal democratic society imposes?

My view is that the method of selection clearly indicates the government’s disdain for transparency and accountability, even if the final deal will eventually be presented for Parliament’s approval. Removing the major part of the process from the continuous scrutiny of the public institutions set up purposely for their examination, is a clear indication of what could lie in store. Comments have already surfaced as to the ethical credentials of those selected as partners.

An eventual agreement will consist of two elements: the provision of the sports facilities and a prime site residential development consisting of around 300 residential units. The second element is intended to finance the first, the land being made available by the taxpayer through publicly-owned land.

Three documents need to be examined in order to identify the applicable parameters and the considerations to be made.

The first document of relevance is the Development Brief for the White Rocks site issued by the then Planning Authority in 1995. Even if then the proposed development was for an “upmarket tourism project” the development parameters drawn up are of extreme relevance to today’s discussion.

The site, the brief informs us, has a total area of 36.9 hectares. This is subdivided into three zones. Zone 1, having an area of 38 per cent of the total, consists of the existing holiday complex and its facilities. Zone 2 (39 per cent of the area) consists of a mixed garigue and rocky coastline, including the marine environment and archaeological resources. Zone 3 (23 per cent of the area) consists of agricultural land.

The 1995 brief laid out that only Zone 1 was to be released for development. The brief identified one exception: an underground structure in Zone 2 which was to be rehabilitated and in respect of which no extension of its footprint was to be considered.

The second document of relevance to the White Rocks site is the North Harbour Local Plan approved in August 2006. This document, in addition to ignoring any development potential of the White Rocks site, defines it as a “green wedge”. Now, to my mind this means that no development is permissible on the site.

The third document of relevance is the Habitats Directive of the EU applicable to these islands as of May 2004. Zone 1 of the White Rocks site is adjacent to a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) which has been so declared by Malta and approved by the EU Commission. This spills over into Zone 2 described above.

Now the only development permissible in SACs is that which is necessary for the management of the site. The Habitats Directive further lays down that activities on sites adjacent to SACs are restricted too, such that they serve as a buffer zone and are not the indirect cause of damage to the said SACs.

If the above parameters are adhered to, it is not at all clear which sports facilities can be developed on the White Rocks site. Given that Zone 1 covers 38 per cent of the total area, the space is limited both in terms of area as well as in terms of potential for the development of sports facilities. This would leave unanswered questions as to where the 300 projected residential units intended as payment for services rendered by the developing consortium are to be built.

One hopes that in planning the development of the sports complex the limits identified in the 1995 development brief will not be ignored.

Given the development parameters established in 1995, to which one must now add the responsibilities derived from the EU Habitats Directive of the European Union, it is doubtful whether the White Rocks site is suitable for development as a sports complex of the extent indicated by the Prime Minister and other government spokesmen.

Furthermore, it is neither possible nor acceptable to develop 300 residential units on the site to settle the costs of this development.

This is just land speculation in its crudest form. In an overdeveloped Malta the least one expects is a government engaging in speculative development in order to settle its bills and simultaneously claiming that the environment is one of its main policy pillars!

One wonders whose advice government is listening to. At times it seems that it has retained its Xagħra l-Ħamra advisors: those that had convinced it to promote a golf course without having first understood its environmental implications. Governments never learn.

published in The Times of Malta, July 3, 2010