Maltatoday, 6th July 2008

A new chairman of the Malta Environment and Planning Authority has been appointed. We wish him well, recognising that he has a formidable task ahead to sort out the many insidious problems lurking within the organisation that he has accepted to captain.

The current problems are not of his making, but he now has the duty of trying to identify and solve them. The hopes of all optimists must run high at this stage, and everyone is clamouring for some tangible and quick results. Yet in certain areas it is not just a stitch or two that is required, but major surgery. Planning decisions affect all of our lives on a daily basis, and the negative side-effects of Mepa’s planning record have become acute.

The urgently awaited Mepa reform still seems distant and stuck somewhere down a long and tortuous pipeline. It is admittedly a challenging task, but very little has changed so far. A code of ethics and good practice and some reform proposals have been put forward by Mepa. The Today Public Policy Institute has presented the Prime Minister with its detailed document ‘The Environmental Deficit’ on Mepa reform, about which Mediatoday organised a well-attended breakfast seminar.

Last November, the Kamra tal-Periti published their document ‘The Urban Challenge’. NGOs also have proposals. All of these and many other proposals deserve adequate and full discussion, which has not yet taken place. Dust will gather fast on these ideas unless some action is taken and the debate is kept burning.

Some articles have been written by interested individuals in the press over the last few months, but this is all not enough. Further comment and thought are essential, and the national debate on planning reform must continue and be kept prominent for as long as it takes until good results are achieved. Otherwise Mepa reform proposals will be at risk of turning into a dust trap.Everyone shows signs of dissatisfaction – the public, the NGOs, architects, developers and property owners – partly because planning decisions are sometimes made along lines which are not clear or consistent enough. When the boundaries are hazy, there is always room for hope that if one keeps on trying, on a lucky day, or by persisting at the right moment, the decision might turn in one’s favour. On the same basis, if it is not decided as one might have wished, it is easy to conclude that the decision was unfair.

One of the problems which will be difficult to solve is this lack of consistency, both in the existing policies and in the way that recommendations and decisions are made by the planning directorate, the boards, and the Appeals boards.

For example, the recent inconsistent decision to grant an outline permit for 11 storeys at Mistra Village, when Mepa’s own policies clearly do not permit this building height, is another chapter in the familiar unsatisfactory story that we know so well. Residents and NGOs are enraged, Mepa’s ailing credibility persists and may even be worsening – and yet for the Authority it seems to be business as usual.

The handling of the Mistra Village project is an infuriating case in point, indicating the reform that is sorely needed. Mepa’s stance on this site completely ignores a wider holistic approach, by disregarding the adverse visual effects that an individual project can have on the surrounding landscape.

‘Not seeing the Wood for the Trees’ could have been an apt title for the presentation on this application made during the Mepa board meeting, when the faulty outline decision on Mistra Village was taken. Regrettably, Mepa treats individual sites as existing in little or big bubbles of their own, and rarely as part of the surrounding landscape or wider community.

What a pity that we have reached this stage, where all public comment on Mepa is overwhelmingly negative. Such a lot of excellent work is done by the organisation behind the scenes, where many trained staff and board members work with dedication, integrity and skill, and have all the right issues at heart.

Something is wrong, but where? Is it some members of the boards, certain members of staff, or other ill-advised pressures brought to bear on decisions, policies or procedures? Or perhaps something else? A sickness has crept steadily through the veins of the organisation. We wait anxiously for a diagnosis and a cure. Dr Petra Bianchi is Director of Din l-Art Helwa