Times of Malta, 30th June 2008, by Mark Micallef

Most of the planning applications submitted by an architect member of a Development Control Commission, which had been recommended for refusal by Mepa’s technical experts, were later approved, a Gozo court heard.

The court was presented with statistics to show the frequency with which Development Control Commissions overturned recommendations by Mepa’s case officers and decided in favour of applications presented by architect Joe Bondin, who for some years simultaneously sat on one of the DCC boards and the Heritage Advisory Committee, while practising his profession.

The figures were produced by Astrid Vella, coordinator of the environment lobby Flimkien Għal Ambjent Aħjar (FAA), during a hearing on Friday in a case instituted against the Malta Environment and Planning Authority by residents of Żebbuġ, Gozo. They are accusing Mepa of irregularities when it issued a permit for the development of a farmhouse outside a development zone in Żebbuġ. The architect who submitted the application was Mr Bondin.

Due to lack of resources, the FAA focused its analysis on specific areas and targeted a number of practising architects who also sit on boards. She has been using the data to make the case with the government against allowing practising architects to sit on Mepa boards.

In Mr Bondin’s case, the FAA developed some statistics for Mosta -his main area of professional activity.

In 2003, out of 25 planning applications he submitted for the Mosta area, 10 were recommended for refusal but the DCC boards overruled seven of these recommendations, Mrs Vella pointed out. Similarly, in 2004, out of 17 applications, 12 were recommended for refusal and nine were overruled. In the final year analysed, 2005, out of 24 applications, seven were recommended for refusal but all of the applications except one were approved.

Mrs Vella and Mr Bondin crossed paths for the first time when the former launched her campaign against the demolition of a baroque house in Għar il-Lembi Street, Sliema. Since then, she said, she has come across a number of irregularities or “unethical behaviour” surrounding projects in which Mr Bondin was the architect.

In this connection she mentioned the case involving 94-year-old Yolanda Angileri who feared her house could collapse after a huge apartment block above her was pulled down for redevelopment while she was still living there last October.

The authority’s lawyer, Ian Stafrace, who is defending Mepa in the Żebbuġ case, argued that sometimes architects alter their designs to address the issues raised by case officers after the latter have made an unfavourable recommendation.

However, Mrs Vella insisted that a detailed look at the applications she had cited showed that the boards often made flimsy justifications for approval. In essence, she claimed, besides an obvious conflict of interest, architects who are allowed to practise and even present their applications before the very boards they sit on have privileged access to information which is not available to other architects or the public. They also have the ability to network with the people involved in the decision-making process.

“And networks at Mepa are alive and kicking,” she said. In this case, the 40-odd residents of an apartment complex, whose view will be partly obstructed by the proposed project, are pressing precisely this point – which is why Mrs Vella was called to testify.

Dr Stafrace asked whether the FAA had conducted a similar analysis of Mr Bondin’s activity after 2005 when he left the DCC. Mrs Vella replied that his planning applications had fallen dramatically after he was no longer a board member.

One of the residents, Ronald Saliba, testified on behalf of the others that he had carried out a similar analysis of applications which, however, does not involve one particular architect.

He studied planning applications in Għarb, Victoria, San Lawrenz and Żebbuġ. Besides discovering that about 38 per cent of the applications made were for outside development zones, Mr Saliba said that between 2004 and last year, only three applications were recommended for approval but were overruled by the DCC.

In contrast, 209 applications were recommended for refusal during the same period but were overruled.