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

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.