Times of Malta, 9th January 2010

The common point of departure in any discussion about the state of the environment in Malta is that Mepa has failed in its role of safeguarding it. This, indeed, lay at the heart of the Prime Minister’s decision, at a critical point in the run-up to the last election, to promise to take Mepa directly under his wing if he were re-elected and to tame the environmental deficit as he had successfully overcome the economic deficit. It was a decision that probably tipped the election in his favour.

As the lead author of the report by The Today Public Policy Institute, The Environmental Deficit: The Reform Of Mepa And Other Regulatory Authorities, I have followed with interest the government’s halting progress to reform Mepa and, more recently, the impassioned article by Victor Axiak in which he advocated the formation of a national watchdog called MEA: the Malta Environment Authority. “This should act,” he said “as a strong regulatory body in environmental matters, with all the required resources, including a well-trained and motivated staff. And, as a national watchdog, it should be able to act independently of all other government entities and authorities.”

Prof. Axiak has done an excellent job as the chairman of the Church Environment Commission and is himself an eminent biologist. His views, therefore, merit careful consideration. In a thoughtful follow-up article, Alan Pulis, a specialist in environmental management, also supported Prof. Axiak’s approach. The concept should not, therefore, be dismissed out of hand.

I personally remain unconvinced on practical grounds, as well as on the balance of the argument, that the change advocated will work any better than the current arrangements. The core of the problem lies not so much in the organisational structures – important though these are – but in the way in which the human beings who man these structures operate within the policy and legal frame-work set: the quality of their judgment, their leadership, their motivation and the political direction they receive.

The watchdog role that is envisaged for the Malta Environment Authority already lies firmly with Mepa. The fact that many believe – and I personally am not so condemnatory of Mepa’s recent performance as some others – that role is not being adequately or effectively fulfilled by it is not due, I would argue, to having both the planning and environmental roles vested in one authority.

Even if the environmental responsibilities were removed from Mepa and placed within a free-standing environment authority, the ten-sions and potential disagreements between planning development requirements and environmental protection would still remain. If these were not resolved within Mepa, as they are (or should be) now, they would have to be settled elsewhere – presumably by politicians. Not to resolve them would lead to institutional stasis.

Far better, in my judgment, for those inevitable clashes between development planning and environmental protection to be determined at the lowest possible policy level within one organisation, under a unified leadership capable of knocking planning and environmental heads together to achieve a common strategic plan, than by two entities working towards different agendas as might happen if separate bodies were to be established.

There is a need in this sensitive area of government for close coordination and good communication between the two halves of the same problem. Land-use planning and environmental protection constitute two sides of the same coin. The two need to be able to coordinate their work together, with the environmental directorate within Mepa acting as a check on the planning directorate wherever biodiversity, nature protection and the natural landscape are threatened. This is achieved most efficiently, economically and effectively within one integrated organisation.

Much – perhaps all – depends on the calibre of the people who run the environment directorate and its place in the hierarchy. It has long been suspected that the human and financial resources within Mepa have been inadequate, both in number and in quality, and, most importantly, that its voice in Mepa’s deliberations, especially at the key decision-making board level, has been stifled. This is the vital change that Mepa’s leadership must make if its environmental watchdog role is to be fully effective.

In the final analysis, however, whatever organisation is in place, it would still have to answer to politicians. This, I suspect, is the nub of the problem. It is the exercise of political will – not the way we organise our officials or expert advisers on the ground – that will ultimately transform Malta’s feckless approach to the environment. That is what we all thought would happen when the Prime Minister took the environment, and specifically Mepa, into his own hands.

Until the whole ethos of Mepa is radically transformed to reflect the new public mood that environmental protection and our quality of life should take over-riding priority over construction development, we shall continue to suffer the consequences of environmental degradation. No amount of tinkering with organisational structures will alter that fundamental truth.