Times of Malta, 24th June 2008 – Editorial

The reform of Mepa and the “environmental deficit” were central issues in the last general election. The Prime Minister’s promise to take Mepa under his wing if his party won the election was a political master stroke. Staking his reputation on his success in reducing the economic deficit, he would now proceed to overcome the environmental deficit.

The concentration of the environment portfolio in the Office of the Prime Minister has yet to show any tangible benefits. In fairness, the enormity of the task, after years of environmental back-sliding, would be daunting for anybody. Both the Prime Minister and new Mepa chairman Austin Walker are in for a tough time!

There have been two notable reports on the reform of Mepa within the space of two months. The first was published by the newly-formed, independent public policy think-tank, the Today Public Policy Institute. The second was the Mepa board’s own report, Mepa Reform: Change For Sustainable Growth.

The think-tank’s report, The Environmental Deficit: The Reform Of Mepa And Other Regulatory Authorities, deals most comprehensively with what to do to improve Mepa. Admittedly, one or two of the more radical proposals may be a little ahead of their time but the majority appear sensible, necessary and, in many cases, long overdue. Written by a think-tank which is impartial, based on evidence and advice from a wide range of experts who know Mepa well and by representatives of civil society, it may be of help to the Prime Minister in his arduous task.

The Mepa report is both important and interesting also because the board knows where the bodies are hidden. Coming at the end of a turbulent six-year tenure by chairman Andrew Calleja one can detect in the recommendations some of the frustrations that make life at Mepa so difficult. The plea for greater financial and human resources – “the reactions by the competent authorities… have not been very helpful…” – is a case in point.

Perhaps more pertinent is the recommendation for the establishment of a Parliamentary Standing Committee for the Environment as a safeguard against “any reports of undue pressure”. Reading this, one can hardly be blamed for suspecting that political pressure, whether on the chairman, the board or staff, is not as rare as we are led to believe. This recommendation chimes in with the think-tank’s proposal for a “clear fire-wall” to be built against political interference and for parliamentary scrutiny of the board’s work.

There are other areas where the two reports coincide in pressing for improvements: greater openness and participation; a proper aesthetics board; the overdue establishment of a National Environmental Enforcement Agency, and others.

Some of the Mepa board’s proposals to introduce new layers of bureaucracy, though well-meant, must be questioned or, at least, better explained.

An omission in this report is any mention of a more transparent selection process for the composition of the board itself and the commissions to avoid (justifiable) accusations of systemic conflicts of interest. This is an issue about which the think-tank is rightly adamant.

With these two reports to hand, the Prime Minister, and, now, Mr Walker, have all the ammunition they need to reform Mepa and to start restoring its battered credibility.