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OPINION | Sunday, 27 January 2008

How to save MEPA

ANNA MALLIA

No beating about the bush: MEPA can be the downfall of this government and it has always been a threat to this government in every general election.
In the past, the government braved this by having MEPA giving last minute permits or rather a mass production of building permits. But now MEPA cannot do this because the environmental lobby is stronger, and it is under surveillance by Brussels.
We all remember the famous (or infamous) placards which accused the Minister of the Environment of being no different from the late Lorry, but here we are once again, with a general election on our doorstep and MEPA still a hot potato. The resignation of architect Catherine Galea came as a breath of fresh air to the general public but whoever is directly involved with MEPA will tell you that architect Galea was the purest virgin of the lot.
If the Minister really wants to be brave and make MEPA what it ought to be, he needs to do a lot of things. First of all, he must change the language or rather the tone in the structure plans: why must we continue to read that the proposals are not mandatory but that they may be imposed? Just in case you’ve never noticed, in these structure plans they are very careful not to commit themselves, to give leeway to MEPA to interpret these plans as widely as possible and never state that these must be done but that these “may” be done.
This “may” is confusing the man in the street and Mepa is making capital out of this confusion. The man in the street is confused because he cannot understand how next door is gifted with a permit for X number of floors, while his own application for the same number of floors is being refused by MEPA.
The Minister can remove this confusion if he wants to and he can start by announcing that developments in a number of main or arterial streets like Tower Road in Sliema, his constituency, to be covered by a fixed number of floors or height elevation and for a fixed number of years. In this way, everybody will know where he stands and corruption, if any, will be mitigated.
Another incentive involves rotating the members of the commissions and the boards within MEPA every three months. This happens in all sensitive places in all democracies. In London, at the West End, the police are rotated every three months for fear of corruption and I do not see why this should not be emulated at MEPA. We all know how rewarding it is to be on any of these boards and I do not see why such rewards should be for the same people all the time (by “rewards” I mean work).
First of all, the government has plenty of architects to choose and secondly, he will be showing the public that he means business when he says that there is no corruption at MEPA. We are all humans and if I stand a better chance of getting a MEPA permit by engaging an architect sitting on any of the boards to do the job, I will do so. This is how the man in the street reasons.
What is unfair about it is that these architects tend to get the bigger slice of the cake and the bigger projects, they get into business with property developers and form companies, and it will not be a surprise if the application of that company in which the architect is a shareholder and/or a director, be decided by the same architect! Because lest you do not know, there is no code of ethics concerning MEPA: it is a case of “min iħawwel l-aktar”.
This is because MEPA is not bound to check who is behind the company submitting the application, or even if applicant is the rightful owner, because MEPA does not request proof of title with the application; neither does it request a declaration that there is no conflict of interest with any member of the DCC boards or any other board. And to add insult to injury, they expect the man in the street to be vigilant about these things and to submit any objection within the 30 days prescribed by law.
We are witnessing a number of applications being submitted by owners when in fact they are not because they are on “konvenju” (promise of sale) and the contract of acquisition is subject to MEPA permit. But I was told during one of the DCC sessions that for MEPA, this is not a false declaration and such application can continue to be processed. If rules are meant to be broken, than why continue to insist on the application being signed by the owner? Change the wording of the application if necessary, but don’t become an accomplice in the crime by blessing false declarations. I am sure that you will agree with me that cases like this continue to tarnish the reputation of MEPA.
This must be stopped right away by MEPA if architects want to be on its boards and commissions that is fine but they have to renounce to a lot of things, particularly their involvement in business and partnerships with property developers, for the duration of their tenure. This is why, I stress that such appointments should not for more than three months, because any period longer than this will smell of corruption.
Another practice, which must be stopped straightaway is that applications submitted by architects who are members of the DCC boards are decided by the same boards. I advise you to go to one of these public hearings and you will note that the architect sitting in the board whose client’s case is called for hearing, just changes the chair from that of member of the DCC to that of a “normal” architect, and discusses his case before his board. It is true that he does not cast his vote but this is not transparency and will prove the public right.
Enforcement is another problem at MEPA because there are many ways to go round it. There is a rule at MEPA that if you apply for a development in a property that is developed according to permit, first you have to remove the illegal development before your application can be considered.
But if the enforcement is ordered by the DCC to check that the plans submitted in the application reflect the true state of the building at present, the enforcement officer, when he wants to be naïve, will just go on site and report that the building is according to plans. Any enforcement officer who knows his job, or DCC board which knows its job, will not ask such a banality; they will order the enforcement officer to check if the plans submitted, not the building on site, reflect the permit conditions.
This goes to show you on how they can make you or break you at MEPA. The responsibility lies with the Minister for the Environment who can introduce the necessary changes to make MEPA regain the people’s trust and confidence.


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