It is inevitable in a small country like Malta, where everybody knows or is acquainted with everybody else, that the pressure from politicians, developers or other clients, as well as environmental NGOs, on those making planning or environmental judgements is intense. In some cases, individual members of boards or commissions are able to withstand such pressure, in others they are not.

A conflict of interest occurs when there is a clash between the public and private interests of somebody in an official position. The key reason for averting conflicts of interest in Mepa (though the same could be said for any public authority) is to avoid the use of public office for private gain, to ensure that corruption – whether through blatant financial bribery or of the more insidious kind – does not contaminate the planning process.

One distinguished senior member of Malta’s judiciary – commenting in a personal capacity – has spoken of “a web of intrigue” involving a confraternity of inter-connected architects, each looking after his own interests. “An architect who is a board member on DCC A will find himself processing the application of another architect who is a member of DCC B. It’s a case of ‘You scratch my back and I scratch yours’: I pass your application on condition you pass mine when the time comes”.

In a more infamous recent case, an architect who had herself been the chairman of one of the commissions and had risen to become the deputy chairman of the board, was forced to resign in disgrace when it became clear that she had broken Mepa’s own planning laws when acting on behalf of a private client. One does not necessarily have to subscribe entirely to the senior judge’s description of Mepa’s boards and commissions as “a kangaroo court” to conclude that, as some of us had long suspected, the current decision-making processes have been undermined, and are potentially flawed, as a result of the incestuous composition of the Mepa boards and commissions.

In a situation where private architects are appointed in their majority to positions of decisions affecting the built and natural environment, in which massive financial investments are at stake ( sometimes affecting their own or their firm’s income), while at the same time being free to pursue their private practices is a recipe for contamination – and possible corruption – of the process. It is not sufficient in such planning cases for the architect concerned to declare an interest and abstain formally from the decision-making adjudication while at the same time acting as the advocate in his client’s case. The potential for mutual back-scratching and the looming presence of a professional colleague (even if he or she has withdrawn from the final vote) are bound to affect the outcome. Human nature alone will see to this, let alone the glittering financial prizes at stake.

This is an intolerable state of affairs which has until recently – the minister has belatedly slightly altered the balance of boards and commissions to reduce the number of architects sitting on them – prevailed. The proportion of architects is still high. The Mepa auditor has himself drawn attention to this unsatisfactory position. Private practice – whether as an architect or the author of environmental impact assessments – and the adjudication of issues of wide public concern and sensitivity cannot equitably go together. Being both judge and jury are seen as mutually incompatible in a court of law. Although the analogy is not exact, planning boards or commissions should be guided by the same principles. The credibility of the whole planning process depends on it.

We must find ways of reducing conflicts of interest to the greatest extent possible, ensuring that technical expertise informs the decisions reached without removing the objectivity, autonomy, transparency and ethical basis on which decisions of such importance are made. A process of independent scrutiny and selection of individuals to serve on Mepa’s boards and commissions must be introduced which ensures that those making these decisions are beyond reproach.

Although I have referred throughout to architects since, in this context, they are the more obvious examples of potential conflicts of interest, the presence of other so called “independent members” on the board must also be questioned. For example, the required nomination of five public officers and two members of Parliament cannot be healthy given that many major planning decisions of dubious – or, at least, questionable – merit are driven by the government’s own narrow political imperatives, sometimes regardless of the wider environmental or development consequences.

Those selected to serve on Mepa’s boards and commissions should reflect more fully the different components of civil society whose concerns they are meant to represent. Until we have a proper selection process in place, we shall continue to have decisions handed down by Mepa which many will continue to believe, rightly or wrongly, are influenced and distorted by vested interests.

January 2008

Martin Scicluna is Vice President of Din l-Art Helwa