Demerger will cause institutional fragmentation.
The state’s duties are not enforceable in a Court of Law.
Protection of the environment is not achieved in proportion to the number of authorities established to deal with the environment, resources and land use planning. In fact, subject to sound governance, the number of established authorities is irrelevant.
The government has, through its election manifesto, created a storm in a teacup, raising expectations that the demerger of MEPA would result in a government locked into a green commitment. The Opposition, on the other hand, has spoken of a doomsday scenario which will be triggered by the proposed demerger.
Both are wrong as the path to a green commitment requires a political will that is not easily detectable in the House of Representatives as presently composed. The Labour government and the Nationalist Opposition have entered into other commitments intended to bolster the building development industry. Labour is currently moving along that path, whilst the Nationalists did it throughout their 26 years in government.
As a nation, we are still reeling from the devastating actions of the PN-led government which caused considerable environmental damage. Former Environment Minister Mario de Marco has recently been on record as stating that maybe too much has been sacrificed in the pursuit of economic growth. This is not simply a revival of the past, it is an exercise in trying to understand past PN issues of environmental governance that contradict all the sweet green talk of Simon Busuttil.
When the 2005 census indicated the existence of over 53,000 vacant or under-utilised residential properties, the PN-led government increased the uptake of land for development through the rationalisation exercise. It addition, it simultaneously increased the permissible height in several areas. In a number of instances, this increased from 2 to five floors. It also facilitated the construction of penthouses. This has led to an increase (as of 2011) in the number of vacant and under-utilised residential properties to 72,000 units.
The proposed demerger of MEPA will neither address nor reverse this mess which is the PN’s environmental legacy to the nation.
Alternattiva Demokratika – The Green Party – is not in agreement with the MEPA demerger proposed by government due to the resulting institutional fragmentation. As a result, human and financial resources will be spread thin over two authorities, thereby weakening effective environmental governance. As a small country, we actually require defragmentation, as this reinforces effective environmental stewardship.
Earlier this week, I and AD’s General Secretary Ralph Cassar had a meeting with Environment Minister Leo Brincat during which we discussed AD’s views in relation to the Environment Protection Act currently pending on Parliament’s agenda.
AD noted that whilst the proposed Environment Protection administrative structures do not contain any parliamentary representation, this has been retained in the land use planning structures. In fact, in paragraph 63(2)(d) of the Development Planning Act 2015, it is provided that two MPs will sit on the Planning Board.
AD does not consider it necessary for Parliament to be present in the planning decision-taking structures. It serves no purpose to have MPs involving themselves in decisions as to which individual development permit is approved or rejected. Alternattiva Demokratika suggested to Minister Brincat that MPs have no direct role to play in operational matters regarding land use planning. It would be more appropriate if Parliament’s Standing Committee on the Environment and Development Planning is given wider powers to monitor both the Planning Authority as well as the authority dealing with the environment and resources. This would entail the availability of financial and human resources so through its Standing Committee, Parliament would be in a better position to identify, and consequently nip in the bud any irregularities or inconsistencies.
Both the Development Planning Act as well as the Environment Protection Act list the duties and principles which the state should observe to ensure “a comprehensive sustainable land use planning system” and “to protect the environment”. However, after going into detail to explain such duties, the legislation before Parliament then proceeds to state that these “are not enforceable in a Court of Law”. This is specified in Article 4 of the Development Planning Act and in Article 5 of the Environment Protection Act.
One should state that there are similar provisions in present legislation. It is, however, high time that such provisions are removed so that it will be possible for Maltese citizens to seek redress against the state if it attempts to circumvent its duties and abdicate its responsibilities.
Last April, following a legal challenge by the environmental NGO Client Earth, the United Kingdom’s Supreme Court squashed Her Majesty’s government’s ineffective plans to reduce illegal levels of air pollution in Britain and ordered it to deliver new ones by the end of 2015.
Similarly, last June Courts in Holland ordered the Dutch Government to reduce its carbon emissions by at least 25 per cent within 5 years in what is being termed as the world’s first climate liability suit.
Maltese citizens deserve no less. It would therefore be appropriate if the above mentioned provisions of the Development Planning Act and the Environment Protection Act are enforceable in a Court of Law.
Another proposal made by Alternattiva Demokratika in the meeting with Minister Brincat concerns the method of selection of the board members of the two Authorities, as well as their senior executives (CEOs and Directors). AD believes that before government proceeds to appoint such members/executives, it should seek and subsequently follow the advice of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on the Environment and Development Planning . Such advice should be given by the Parliamentary Committee after the persons nominated are examined by the Committee during a sitting held in public. This change would increase the possibility of the appointment of a higher percentage of competent people as members of the board/senior executives. It would also reduce the possibility of appointing people whose only qualification is membership in the government party.
The proposed demerger is, in my view a non-issue. Legislating to facilitate the entrenching of good governance should be the real objective. After discussing the matter with Minister Leo Brincat I believe that, even at this late hour, this is still attainable.
Published in The Malta Independent on Sunday – 16 August 2015