Times of Malta, 25 April 2008, by Mark Micallef – Save for the director general and a couple of case officers, nobody from the top brass at the Malta Environment and Planning Authority was present at a debate on the watchdog’s reform yesterday.

Compensating somewhat, two officers from the Office of the Prime Minister, which is now responsible for the authority, attended the business breakfast when the reform was addressed.

The event, organised by Mediatoday, discussed the report published last week by the Today Public Policy Institute on the reform of Mepa and other environmental agencies.

The weak presence by the authority was highlighted by former board member Joanna Spiteri Staines who was there along with other former board members and spoke at length about her own experience working for the authority.

Using the case of an application for a washroom in Gozo as an example, she said that the boards were often placed in embarrassing situations due to the inconsistent way in which major projects, as opposed to run-of-the-mill applications, were treated. In the case in question, the board had to refuse the application because the washroom exceeded the height allowed in the area when, further down the road, a block of apartments exceeding the height limit was given the green light as a major project.

“We wrote to the chairman about the situation and got no reply,” she said.

“I feel that the questions we’re raising should be addressed to Mepa’s top people… I would have expected a better presence,” she said later.

The lead author of the report and head of the think-tank, Martin Scicluna, outlined the main recommendations for reform. In particular, the discussion that followed centred around the report’s recommendations that the authority should merge the present role of director general and chairman into one executive chairman and that Mepa should be kept as it is in terms of being responsible for planning and the environment at the same time.

The idea to de-merge the authority – which was actually two separate units in 2002: a planning authority and an environmental protection department – was floated by Mepa’s former investigating officer Carmel Cacopardo before it was adopted as its own by Alternattiva Demokratika, which he joined some months before the election. Mr Scicluna said the institute had evaluated the idea but decided that, on balance, the current organisation carries significant advantages.

“While there is inevitably a creative tension between development planning on one hand and environmental protection on the other, to separate the two functions into two free-standing entities would undermine the essential need for close communication, coordination and integration between the two halves of the same problem on matters of common concern,” Mr Scicluna said, arguing that it would all have to be directed by an effective executive chairman, who would be crucial for the reform as envisioned by the institute. The authority’s audit officer, Joe Falzon, raised the issue that such a chairman could be in a situation of conflict because s/he would chair the main board while also heading the technical units that give the boards professional and supposedly unbiased support.

Nonetheless, drawing on his experience at the UK -Ministry of Defence, Mr Scicluna insisted he saw this sort of streamlining work in practice. The performance of the ministry had been improved substantially, he explained, when the Secretary of Defence in the mid-1980s merged what were formerly three chiefs of staff into one position.

It just would make better sense to have a full-time executive chairman (the present chairman is employed part-time) with clearer accountability for all the decisions reached as well as the running of the organisation, he argued.

“Effective management and good leadership of an organisation as high-profile and complex as Mepa require no less,” said Mr Scicluna.