by Alan Deidun

It’s a parrot secret that the environment has always been fertile ground for the gain and loss of political gain, with expediency and hot air being the names of the game. No real love for the environment has ever been lost by our politicians who, for their vast majority, barring a few rare exceptions on both sides of the political divide, view the environment as a delicate minefield to negotiate once in government, and, alternately, a bountiful pasture once on the opposition benches.

Be it the Delimara powerstation or the Gaffarena petrol station or the recent much-touted ‘launch’ of the SPED (Strategic Plan for the Environment and Development), the behaviour of most (since, as in most other cases, it’s unfair to tar everyone with the same brush) politicians betrays their inconsistency, and, sometimes, wanton, hypocrisy concerning thorny environmental issues, such as enforcement and permitting. Gaffarena had the acumen to wait long enough for the lifeline – in this case, a policy revision in the 11th hour and in the absence of a regulatory framework (Structure Plan has expired and SPED was not in place) – since he was fully aware that illegal buildings or their extensions are rarely pulled down in this country, especially if they reside in prominent places, in view of the outcry and attempts at self-commensuration that this would inevitably generate. What raises several eyebrows is the frank reply given by Gaffarena when quizzed about whether or not he was aware at the time that he was building illegally, which made reference to the fact that he was not stopped by anyone. Whilst his gall knows no bounds, such a statement, if true, draws the limelight on MEPA and its supervision capabilities.

gaffarena petrol station

As aptly demonstrated by Petra Caruana Dingli in her previous blog: ‘The SPED – two starters but no main course’, the long-anticipated launch of the SPED, which should our own planning version of the Magna Carta in lieu of the defunct Structure Plan, has been a huge anticlimax. In fact, rather than the SPED report, only a revamped version of the scoping document issued way back in 2012 has been released, which simply lists key principles, general principles and very broad objectives which contain very little specific detail or substance. For instance, the following vague statement is listed under Gozo Objective 1: ‘Encouraging better links between Malta and Gozo’. What exactly does this imply? We need specific guidance rather than vague statements which don’t wash. Same for the following statements, which are equally as broad: ‘Facilitating the implementation of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive and work towards good environmental status’ – how exactly will such a challenging task, for which Malta lacks manpower and facilities, be achieved? The report seems to rubber-stamp the development of an airstrip in Gozo, as well as the siting of yacht marinas and Cruise Passenger Terminals, without spending a single word on site identification, which will lead to speculation.

If anything, the Delimara powerstation case, in which scientists on both sides of the argument are being wheeled out at pleasure like pawns and where all sorts of dirty tricks are being deployed to discredit the other side, has eloquently demonstrated that the two tribes (political ones, of course) are still alive and kicking in this country and no amount of pre-election hype will serve to disband them. This despicable case has also shown that the blame for the unpopular status enjoyed by MEPA with Joe Citizen lies squarely on the shoulders of both parties – when in opposition, they are quick to denigrate and undermine MEPA; whilst in government, the same individuals are quick to praise the same Authority they lampooned just weeks before. Turning MEPA into a pin cushion creates a convenient scapegoat if you are in opposition but will haunt you once you are in government. It’s just hot air at the end of the day.