Times of Malta editorial, 19 April 2008 – The independent public policy think-tank, The Today Public Policy Institute, on Thursday published its first report on The Environmental Deficit: The Reform Of Mepa And The Other Regulatory Authorities. At first reading this is a comprehensive, wide-ranging and radical report on an issue that became a prime electoral issue in the general election campaign and has gripped public opinion since.

It deals in detail with four key areas of environmental public policy which the Prime Minister has now personally taken under his wing.

Part I focuses on the structural improvements at government level and the new ministerial responsibilities. Part II deals with the reform of the regulatory authorities: Mepa, the Malta Resources Authority, the Malta Transport Authority and local councils. Part III concentrates on enforcement, education and the encouragement of good practice. And part IV deals with the issues of climate change and sustainability.

The report contains about 180 recommendations or proposals. The reform of Mepa is, undoubtedly, its centre-piece. There are some 90 recommendations or proposals for Mepa’s restructuring and improvement, covering three main areas. First, Mepa’s structure and leadership. Secondly, the selection and composition of Mepa’s key decision-making board and commissions. And, thirdly, the adoption of systems and procedures designed to ensure transparency, effectiveness and accountability in the way it operates. The think-tank recommends that Mepa’s reform must take account of changes needed in these three inter-locking areas, together with concomitant changes in legislation to underpin them.

The think-tank makes fundamental proposals for change, among these the recommendation that, in future, a full-time executive chairman of Mepa should be appointed to replace the present split responsibilities.

The report recommends that the size of the Mepa board is reduced to nine members from today’s 15. To remove conflicts of interest and to ensure that civil society is more broadly represented on the boards or commissions, it recommends that the Prime Minister should select the executive chairman and chairmen of the commissions only after consultation and agreement with the Leader of the Opposition. The remaining members would be nominated to the Prime Minister by specific civil bodies (listed in the report) and the Prime Minister will then vet them and may reject them. He will then submit his selection of names to a parliamentary standing committee – the already existing Standing Committee on Development Planning – for scrutiny and approval by it.

The report further recommends that there should be regular parliamentary scrutiny of Mepa’s operational effectiveness and efficiency, including the auditor’s reports.

About 70 proposals for improvement to Mepa’s systems and procedures to tighten up matters of regulation and the way business is conducted and to close loopholes are also made. These recommendations for change range from the way in which the hearings of the board and commissions are conducted, to tightening up the way EIAs are carried out, to proposals to close loopholes in the abuse of outside development zone (ODZ) rules – which have been the subject of such recent controversy ‒ to the need for a powerful Aesthetics Committee to be formed.

There are many others dealing with every aspect of managing the environment, from the formation of a public-private partnership which the report calls a Clean Environment Consortium to the enforcement of the law on environmental matters through an Environment Enforcement Agency.

This thorough and well-thought-out report will now need to be carefully studied and it is very much hoped that those proposals deemed sensible in respect of Mepa and the other regulatory authorities will be adopted by the Prime Minister who has personally taken on the difficult challenge of restoring public confidence in these organisations and reducing the environmental deficit. A sweeping root and branch review has been long overdue and this latest report is the kind of ammunition with which he can do it.