Times of Malta 25 January 2010

In his article Mepa Bill: Parliament Take Note! (January 19), Robert Musumeci argues that consistency in planning requires “a system of sentencing policy made available to the new decision bodies so that such decision-makers will be able to build on already established case law. Perhaps it is now the right time to introduce the doctrine of precedence”.

Decision-making at the Malta Environment and Planning Authority has not always been consistent or able to stand up to scrutiny. For this reason, this “doctrine of precedence” must not be applied sweepingly to all past decisions. The truth is, we do not want more of what we have had so far and that is the whole point of the reform.

The Mepa board revoked permits at Ramla l-Ħamra and at Mistra bay. Had there not been a public outcry leading to these revocations, should such permits have set a precedent to be followed? What about bad examples such as the supermarket at Safi, which led to the resignation of an entire Mepa DCC board, or the depressing decisions allowing developments in protected areas of countryside such as Ta’ Baldu and Baħrija?

It is crucial that this question of precedence is given serious thought during the reform of Mepa.

Mr Musumeci’s straightforward version of precedence, which he has also expressed elsewhere, might imply that, once a planning mistake has been made, we can all assume the right to repeat the mistake. He does not provide a balanced view to differentiate between good and bad past decisions. His argument only runs half the distance required and stops well short of the finishing line.

Parliamentary Secretary Mario de Marco is absolutely right to insist that consistency in Mepa policies and decisions must be a main focus of the reform. He has announced that he intends to compile a manual of past decisions to serve as a guide for decision-makers when interpreting planning policies.

Let us hope that this manual will highlight the good decisions taken by Mepa over the years as the right examples to be followed and put a stop to the possibility of past mistakes being repeated.

Another step forward to achieve consistency is the ongoing effort to compile a tighter compendium of policies, leaving out any existing obsolete, conflicting or impractical policies. As things stand, policies sometimes give different interpretations.

For example, at Mistra Village, the Local Plan allowed eight storeys with slight deviations, yet the Floor Area Ratio policy states that there should be no high buildings on Mistra Ridge. The Mepa board, faced with these two policies, proceeded to grant 11 storeys!

With inconsistent documents and decisions like this, it is possible to pick and choose policies to justify an application and identify loopholes to jump through, confused further by a stream of past decisions that are also inconsistent.

What we need is a system that will enable the new Mepa board members to be very clear about what is permissible and what is not. They should be provided with information and training to erase all possible doubt about what they should protect. They should be given streamlined policies to follow, without grey areas that are easily open to abuse. It is up to the government to impart sound priorities and guidelines and then allow the boards to get on with their work without interference.

The new boards must ensure that past mistakes will not be repeated and, above all, that any past mistakes will not be given weight as a precedent to justify further bad decisions in the future.

Din l-Art Ħelwa has repeatedly stated that the essence of success for the reform lies in the hands of the board members. Good governance is vital for the reform to deliver lasting results.

The “doctrine of precedence” must in no way be allowed to lead to a repetition of what we have seen so far: a damaged environment, unbridled and ugly overdevelopment and new environmental and heritage movements surging up in anger from every corner of the community. All previous bad decisions and policies must be thrown out to enable the new Mepa boards to start with a clean slate.

Dr Bianchi is vice-president of Din l-Art Ħelwa.