Times of Malta, 22 July 2009 

The long awaited proposals for the reform of Mepa have finally been revealed. There is much to commend in many of the proposals. Some are eminently sensible and may resolve the planning catastrophe we have been living these past 40 years.

Undoubtedly, one of the main problems we had was that Mepa did not seem to be acting openly and with consistency. It set policies for outside development zones and urban conservation areas and then allowed permits to be issued in these areas. Scandals such as the Lidl supermarket in an ODZ area in Mqabba or the issuing of a permit for a massive high-rise development at Mistra, which went against the draft floor area ratio policy, totally discredit the organisation and negate much of the good work of its employees.

Can we believe that the proposed reforms are going to give us a new era of sound corporate governance where accountability and seriousness will characterise the new Mepa?

Some history is relevant here.

Back in the 1980s, all planning was in the hands of the minister. The minister could delineate so-called building development areas and green areas almost single-handedly. And what a catastrophy that was. Malta suffered an environmental disaster with whole tracts of land gobbled up for badly-planned suburbs, which are horrible to look at. It created urban issues such as traffic, noise pollution, workshops alongside dwellings and no recreation space for adults and children. It is most common now to see joggers and walkers along busy thoroughfares trying to keep fit while breathing seriously polluted air. Fields and valleys were given over to development without any concept of land use for other ulterior motives. Today, houses are already being pulled down and redeveloped into apartments and our residential areas are in a permanent state of building development.

The problem was that politicians were involved. In fact, they are still involved. As the sorry affair of Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando and Mistra showed, politicians are still lobbying at Mepa whether for themselves or clients. Look what happened with the removal of caravans. Two politicians – one from each side of the political divide – were fighting on behalf of the caravaners to find them an alternative site (right in the middle of Foresta 2000, a Natura 2000 site and the Bird Sanctuary; wow,good choice, boys!).

The Prime Minister’s idea, therefore, that planning policy is to be given back to politicians is a terrible idea. We would wish the opposite: that they are kept completely out of it. Politicians have not proved capable of looking after our environment. Only since we joined Europe have we started building sewage farms instead of dumping raw sewage into the sea or trying to tame Magħtab or recycling waste or looking at alternative energy.

The new proposals state that policy should move to the Office of the Prime Minister. Were policy to be at a high level, the need for a new golf course, for example, then this could be acceptable. However, policy could mean the drafting of local plans and the indication of areas that would be given over for the development of such a facility. It would indicate which areas were to be given over to development, the heights of buildings and what areas are to be considered urban conservation areas. Mepa would then issue or withhold permits in accordance with those policies. At a stroke, Mepa would just become the executive and the real planning issues would revert back to the government.

This is an appalling step backwards. One cannot trust politicians close to an election to throw out all restraint just before it takes place, especially in Malta when the results are as close to call as any. Just before the last election, the government proposed a substantial extension of development areas on very shaky grounds (in our opinion) but definitely not on sound planning grounds. This can be seen as the precursor of the consolidation of planning power back in the hands of the government.

I can see the long queues forming at Castille with each developer pushing his claim and each will be growing more powerful as the election comes closer.

What is required is a fair and open process with no potential developer (whether large or small ) getting an unfair advantage. When a single one does, then the floodgates are opened.

No, Prime Minister, what is required is an independent Mepa able to withstand the meddling of the political class not one that is totally emasculated with the country again held at ransom to the government of the day.

Mr Galea is executive president of Din l-Art Ħelwa