Times of Malta, 1st August 2009, by Kurt Sansone –

The Prime Minister allayed fears of a return to the politician-driven planning processes of the past and insisted a reformed authority would remain responsible for the revision of the structure and local plans.

He was reacting to fears expressed by various critics on the proposal made in the Malta Environment and Planning Authority reform blueprint to shift policymaking to a new unit at the Office of the Prime Minister.

Although Lawrence Gonzi denied that the government had backtracked on the original idea, a top government official later said the published blueprint may have been “overzealous”.

The policy unit had been slated to draw up policies on outside development zones, the height of buildings and revise the local plans, among others.

Closing off a national conference that discussed Mepa reform, Dr Gonzi had to clarify the proposal since, in his own words, it was misunderstood.

“Issuing building permits will remain absolutely in Mepa’s hands. The government would not be influencing the revision of the local plans and the drawing up of the structure plan but these would be reviewed in Parliament,” he said.

“It is an overall strategic policy that the government would be drawing up within the context of an electoral programme that had to be implemented,” Dr Gonzi said.

He apologised for not giving due importance to the environment in the planned reform. The document gave the impression that the government wanted to give more importance to planning and permit issues and ignore the environment, he said.

“Mepa already fulfils its environmental functions well and we may have taken it for granted. In the weeks to come we have to spell out what we intend to do in this regard to give the environmental aspect its due importance,” Dr Gonzi said.

The Prime Minister and Parliamentary Secretary Mario de Marco, who has been entrusted with the reform, sat throughout the conference listening and taking note of the various issues raised.

Different stakeholders, including NGOs, Mepa employees, developers and architects took part in the conference.

Some slight changes were made to the original reform document, the most significant being that the proposed voluntary screening process would be given a four-week term and Mepa would undertake to validate an application in two weeks.

Most of those present put across their grievances, stands and opinions with little reference to the published blueprint. Some questions were also left unanswered.

Former Mepa director general Godwin Cassar asked whether politicians or experts would be drawing up the structure plan and the assistant director in Mepa’s Environment Unit, Marie Briguglio said the reform was not ambitious enough. She said the reform should have been more consistent with the authority’s name since there was little reference to the environment throughout the document.

Architect Robert Musumeci said he did not agree with the proposal that planning case law would be ignored. He asked for clear guidelines about what would happen during the transition process for pending applications.

Environmentalist Astrid Vella insisted that Development Control Commission board members should be subject to public scrutiny before being appointed by the minister.

Church Environment Commission chairman Victor Asciak said the experience of the last 50 years had shown that politicians could not be trusted to have a long-term vision. He suggested DCC board members should be answerable to Parliament.

On the other hand, the director general of the Chamber for Small and Medium Enterprise – GRTU, Vince Farrugia said Mepa board members should not be appointed by the government but by a board of stakeholders.

A number of developers ex-pressed concern that the reform might stifle the construction industry and make it harder for small developers to obtain permits.

Pitching in for “the man in the street”, former minister Michael Falzon asked how the reform would contribute to ensure consistency when it still allowed different case officers to interpret policy in different ways. He lamented the removal of negotiations between architects and DCC board members would give case officers disproportionate power.

The Labour Party spokesman for the environment, Leo Brincat raised a number of questions linked to enforcement and accountability. He insisted that there had to be the political will to follow through with enforcement.

The conference was chaired by Fr Joe Borg, who kept proceedings flowing while throwing in the occasional jibe about the whole affair.

Salient changes to Mepa blueprint

Composition of DCCs
The original blueprint said the DCC boards would be composed of three members. The revised proposal talks of a minimum of three and a maximum of five members. No change is envisaged to the method of appointment, which would be through a public call.

Mepa board members
The blueprint introduced the concept of having one of the eight independent board members appointed from environmental groups and another being a heritage expert. In the revised proposal, the government is suggesting appointing a further two members to represent socio-economic stakeholders.

The original reform removed the possibility of reconsiderations at DCC level. In the updated version an applicant can, just once, ask for the case to be reconsidered. In such cases if the DCC deems fit, it can give its go-ahead for a development subject to the changes it would have requested.

A subject raised for the first time in the updated reform was the classification of objections according to three categories: planning related, environmental and other complaints. This would help the adjudication process.

Screening and validation process
The voluntary screening process before an application is filed, which was suggested in the blueprint, is to be retained. However, the updated reform introduced new deadlines for screening and validation.

Screening would take four weeks. After the screening process the unit manager is to inform the applicant of any required documents or studies and then it is up to the developer to give an indication of how long it would take him to finalise the documentation.

After all documents are in hand the application goes to validation stage. The maximum time for an application to be validated would be two weeks after which it would progress through the normal channels.

The deadlines for processing applications in 12 or 26 weeks depending on how complicated they are were retained.