Times of Malta, 31st July 2009 –

The law of unintended consequences holds that there are often initiatives, invariably taken with the best of intentions, which lead in the event to negative or perverse results absolutely contrary to what was intended.

The Prime Minister’s intention, announced in his long-awaited Blueprint for Mepa reform, to arrogate planning policy to himself is another such example. “It should be clear,” he says, “that the government should be the ultimate policy-maker”. In mangled jargon, he then says the government will build such a capacity by setting up “a strategic policy shop” within the Office of the Prime Minister and “the resulting structure will be responsibilised (sic) with a policy formulation role”.

This would be a profoundly retrograde step, harking back to the 1980s when planning policy lay in the hands of a single minister.

Mepa’s creation in 1992 aimed at a clear separation between the making of planning policy and the issuing of development permits on a ministerial whim and the national imperative for a well-ordered planning process. It had at its core equity and transparency of treatment and the implementation of objective standards within a clearly laid down structure that achieved sustainable development. Nepotism and corruption were to move out of the planning process. While there has been some falling from grace from these high ideals, these values remain as relevant today as they were in 1992.

The proposal to move responsibility for planning policy away from Mepa and to focus it in the OPM would inevitably lead to political interference and, possibly, abuse. That is the nature of the political beast. If Mepa’s crucial position as Malta’s most important bulwark against land abuse is to be strengthened – and this is what everybody thought was the objective of the reforms – there is a vital need to ensure a clear fire-wall is built between politicians and the planning authority.

While the government must be in a position to lay down the broad environmental and development strategy to be followed by the country, it must adopt a hands-off approach where the formulation of policy and specific decisions affecting land use are concerned. This said, clearly in certain defined areas, such as national security and defence, the government’s judgment must prevail.

The real danger in this proposal lies in the unintended consequences. With all policy concentrated in the hands of the Prime Minister, who is to gain-say that the planning process will not be subjected to electoral pressures in the run-up to a tightly-fought general election? Shades of the Armier boat-houses and the Marfa action plan. And who is to say what changes could be wrought by a different Prime Minister with different electoral or other priorities ready to change those policies to accommodate developers or other interest groups? With political parties’ coffers largely lined by the major building contractors, who can foretell the possible consequences for policy?

The government’s strategic responsibility in all fields is for the application of national resources to achieve policy objectives and good governance. The purpose of government strategy in the environmental and planning fields is to direct and provide coherence to overall national environmental policy in the context of its economic and social policies. Three broad government responsibilities flow from this definition. First, to lay down the objectives for Mepa to draw up and implement the necessary policy procedures to achieve the government’s strategic aims. Secondly, to stipulate any limitations to be imposed on those activities and, thirdly, to make available the requisite resources.

Part III of the Development Planning Act, 1992 already on the whole sets out adequately the process by which this should be implemented. What appears to be lacking at present is a transparent and workable strategic plan that brings together not simply the aspects of government environmental strategy affecting Mepa but also all the other inter-linked environmental, economic and social planning objectives that inevitably impinge upon each other to achieve sustainable development.

Yet, the Prime Minister – who is already responsible under the Environmental Protection Act for the National Commission for Sustainable Development – has at his finger-tips the ideal tool for laying down this strategic policy. Indeed, he launched the Strategic Plan for Sustainable Development three years ago. The plan covers the multitude of concerns about the environment and planning and ties them in with the social and economic development issues that need to be tackled together if true sustainable development is to be achieved.

Rather than setting up a policy unit in OPM, what he should be advocating is the establishment of a full-time team, ideally led by a Commissioner for Sustainable Development, to drive the strategic plan forward. The policy responsibilities that currently reside in Mepa should stay unchanged but they should be obliged to draw up those policies on land-use within the framework – available for all to see – of the objectives laid down in the Strategic Plan for Sustainable Development.

The Prime Minister should seize the opportunity presented by this reform process to lay down a clear long-term plan for sustainable development, rather than merely paying lip-service to it, which will include the strategic directions to Mepa for policy formulation in the planning and environmental fields. He should beware the law of unintended consequences, which his current proposals entail.

Mr Scicluna is director general of The Today Public Policy Institute