Times of Malta, 31 December 2009

Two astonishing doc-uments have just been published by Mepa. They were the findings of a board of inquiry into the issue of permits for a supermarket in Luqa and some bungalows in Baħar iċ-Ċagħaq. The inquiries were brought about at the insistence of Mepa’s indefatigable auditor, Joe Falzon, and the board of Mepa appointed two of its own to conduct the inquiry. At first instance I don’t think that appointing the board of inquiry from among the Mepa board members gives an image of independence but, to Mepa’s credit, they have published the full results of the inquiry and they can be found online at the Mepa website.

So what was so astonishing about these cases?

Well, it seems that two high-ranking planning officers (from the major projects team) exceeded their limits in issuing a re-commendation for approval for the two applications. This in itself might not sound so earth shattering for most of us, already jaundiced by some of Mepa’s very questionable decisions in the past. But what is perhaps mind boggling is the sheer brazen audacity of the planning officers to recommend approval in the circumstances of the case.

Take the supermarket in Luqa. This is situated at the end of the runway and is in what is called the public safety zone (the safety zone around the runways). Objections were received from Malta International Airport, the Director of Civil Aviation, the Natural Heritage panel and the EPD. In spite of this, the application was recommended for approval. I would have thought that some weight would be given to these objections, especially as this application was for a supermarket – hardly a project in the national interest – and the fact that it was within the public safety zone.

No problem, it seems; the recommendation was to approve.

The case goes further. During the application process the planning officers went to the Mepa board for consultation. There is some confusion in what the board accepted and what was finally put to the Development Control Comm-ission for approval. Indeed, the report states that there appears to be some inconsistency as to what was presented to the board and what was approved. Quite a damning statement.

The other case revolved about building bungalows in a villa area where the building density was relaxed to allow more building in the plot than what was allowed in the Local Plan. Again, the conclusions of the report are quite damning: “The major projects team should deal only with major projects. They feel they are not bound by the strict interpretation of Mepa guidelines and policies. This might be acceptable to some degree where the project is of national interest because of its scale or function. But where applied to a villa project or any other project normally reported on by other teams who apply the rules more meticulously, it creates inconsistencies and problems for Mepa.”

It is to the credit of the board of inquiry that they pulled no punches and published their findings. However, it also uncovers more problems for the beleagured organisation. It appears that the major projects team is used to bending the rules. When one marries this to some of the major blunders we have had in the past, where DCC boards also took the same tack, we can see a huge problem forming.

We have commented in the past about board decisions, such as the supermarket in Safi, the bungalows at Ramla, the Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando case at Mistra, the high-rise development at Mistra Village and others, where they took it upon themselves to approve app-lications that went against plann-ing policy and regulations. We can therefore see that, often, with large projects it is not the system that is wrong but very much the ind-ividuals who take decisions with singular liberty.

The Mepa reform is ongoing and one hopes that good things will come out of this review. However, unless the decision-takers and the directorate operate strictly within the parameters they are meant to, then we will have more of the same. It is up to the Mepa board to ensure that the regulator is seen to be independent, just and equitable in applications and that the law is strictly applied. Any thing else makes the reform a wasted exercise.

Mr Galea is executive president of Din l-Art Ħelwa.