Times of Malta, 25th June 2008

Alas, Mepa seems to insist in exhibiting its weakness to handle pressure and “graced” us with another embarrassing press release. The one issued following the approval of the Mistra Village redevelopment is another in a series of press releases that all those who dedicated a significant part of their lives studying and practising planning hope is just the last nail in the coffin before the eagerly-anticipated new start. I trust this unfortunate incident does not dampen the enthusiasm and confidence we all have that this time change will happen.

Is it acceptable that every time Mepa makes an important decision it has to justify its stand through a press release, stating that it has acted in accordance with its own planning policies and regulations (yuppie!)? Has the lack of formal academic training, specific planning skills and experience, coupled with continuous hostile criticism, manage to instil fear and insecurity in the organisation, so much so that they are haunting Mepa in every decision?

The famous quotes following a pig farm decision that “We just cannot afford to go against policy. We’ve been criticised in the past for doing that” and “We don’t have the luxury to use common sense” continue to send shivers down my spine, yet few seem to understand the danger of this instability.

Apart from the blatant admission of how decisions are or were taken, I don’t remember planning to be a popularity contest. The feeble justification vis-à-vis the traffic-congested Xemxija Hill and the creating of alternative routes led to more doubts than it removed. Moreover, given the very prescriptive Local Plan policy governing the area, it is sad that such a significant private sector investment took four years to be approved. It surely doesn’t say much about efficiency and efficacy of those involved and it is not fair on the private sector and potential investors, who are often seen as the bad guys.

I thought we were meant to expect just, transparent and accountable decisions. I also thought that those who damaged Mepa will take their leave; some did, others are still there, promising things they cannot guarantee to deliver and wasting everybody’s time and money in fruitless negotiations. Decision makers are clearly becoming paranoid, victims of psychological subjection (be it from developers, environmentalists or NGOs). I’m afraid that this situation will not give us a better environment and will not deliver sustainability.

But are we expecting too much from Mepa? In times of panic (a perennial management-by-crisis mode), this regulator has always been very “sensitive” to the public mood. It has, among others, given us press releases in defence of projects it later revoked, others justifying the waiving of studies it later renegotiated, colourful interpretations of a building footprint, an unfortunate and widely-publicised boycott incident and, lastly, convoluted and often senseless justifications of its unjustified overturning of the Directorate’s recommendations.

Planning is about reconciling different and often competing uses for limited resources while ensuring that the exploitation of such resources does not jeopardise the future generations’ potential to meet their own needs. This is the whole notion of sustainability and sustainable development. It affects every individual. Planning is the canvas on which visions for this country should be drawn and decisions on new infrastructure, utilities, waste management, sustainable transport modes and new links, cultural and environmental heritage, the location of developments that stimulates employment, education, recreation and housing are made.

Yet, while the public’s views and well-being are an integral part of the planning process, it is accepted that consensus cannot be always achieved (hence, maximising the winners and compensating the losers: planning gain). It is in these circumstances that decisions made have to be unequivocal, equitable, transparent and accountable.

In truth, Mepa’s appointees cannot be entirely blamed for all these gaffes; they are only victims of circumstance. I believe the responsibility of choosing qualified and competent individuals able to fulfil the role they are being assigned lies with those who appoint them. In this regard, I’m confident, judging by the Prime Minister’s full awareness of the high stakes involved, both in terms of political success and the country’s prosperity, that he is truly determined to turn rhetoric into action.

On the other hand, appointees are in duty bound to undertake an examination of conscience and decide whether they are fit or otherwise to take on such responsibility and assist in this transformation.

It is hoped that Mepa will soon restore its lustre, find the motivation, tranquillity and courage to look at the future with confidence and use its valid work as a springboard to new challenges.

Mr Bonello, who holds a BSc (Hons) in environmental planning, spent 10 years working with Mepa before opening his own planning consultancy.