Maltatoday, 6th July 2008 – Editorial

Public consultations exercises conducted by the Malta Environment and Planning Authority (MEPA) are often chaotic and belligerent affairs.

Last Thursday’s approval of the Fort Cambridge project in Qui-Si-Sana was no exception, but unlike previous sessions characterised by shouting and remonstration, this one also exposed a disquieting dimension to Malta’s planning policy regime.
The facts will by now be known to all, but a brief recap may be necessary to put them into context. Early in the course of the sitting, a journalist discovered a press release, prepared by MEPA, announcing the approval of the project… despite the fact that at that stage, the vote had yet to be taken.
When MEPA chairman Austin Walker’s attention was drawn to this unusual fact, his explanation was that two press releases had been prepared beforehand: one announcing an approval of the project, and the other a refusal. However, when asked to produce the corresponding press release detailing the refusal, he declined: “It is not an issue,” he said.
Unfortunately for Mr Walker, that is not up to him to decide. Many people in this country will no doubt consider the pre-ordained approval of a controversial project, when residents’ objections had not even been heard, to qualify as an “issue”.
Besides, at face value Walker’s explanation is a little hard to take seriously, if nothing else because if it is true that a press release announcing a “refusal” had also been drawn up, it would have had to supply reasons to justify the refusal. What were these reasons? And how could they have been decided beforehand, when the registered objectors had not yet raised their objections?
Readers may draw their own conclusions, but either way, Walker has since acknowledged that his “two press releases” strategy was a mistake. This places the matter beyond all reproach, and as far as this newspaper is concerned the case is now closed.
But it will be a little harder to digest MEPA’s earlier official reaction, which took the form of a furious press release accusing journalist James Debono of misappropriating public documents, with a view to “disrupting” the public hearing.
MEPA PRO Peter Gingell’s reaction was not only hysterical and excessive: it was also untrue. Debono was not the journalist who first came across the press release… although Gingell will be forgiven for not knowing this, as it transpires he wasn’t even in the room when the discovery was made.
More importantly, however, his reaction provides a picture-perfect illustration of a standard pattern of behaviour among government officials, whereby any critic of government policy is immediately attacked and accused of harbouring hidden agendas.
The same thing happened last week, when this newspaper highlighted the plight of a 75-year-old woman left to wait three days for an operation at Mater Dei hospital. The health ministry’s knee-jerk reaction was to accuse this newspaper of sensationalism for reporting the incident. Worse, the elderly lady herself, as well as her family, was accused of lying and fabricating evidence. One can only wonder how long the present administration will take to grow out of its childish habit of shooting the messenger, instead of addressing the root cause of the problems as they arise.
Back to the Fort Cambridge approval, and once again the authorities have passed up a unique opportunity to show their commitment to genuine reform.
Austin Walker – who is by all accounts a serious professional – was appointed as MEPA chairman by Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi, soon after the latter announced he would be taking personal responsibility for the authority. In essence, Walker inherits a structure plagued by the popular perception that it uses different yardsticks in processing different applications, according to the identity of the applicant.
There appears to be one set of rules for ordinary citizens, and another altogether for big businesses and well-connected entrepreneurs: the latter traditionally receiving a far more accommodating treatment than the former.
This is the perception that Walker must strive to rid his authority of, if the Prime Minister’s reforms are to get off on the right foot. But last Thursday’s shenanigans only served to compound the general impression that MEPA does indeed take a compliant view of mega-projects, often at the expense of the public’s justified concerns.
If Walker is to succeed in his mission to overturn these negative impressions, he is going to have to “walk the walk” as well as he has so far “talked the talk”.
Needless to add, this newspaper will be watching MEPA every step of the way.