MEPA Audit Officer Joe Falzon complained of a lack of political will to combat planning illegalities at the GO-Today seminar on reform of the Malta Environment and Planning Authority, at Palazzo Capua in Sliema.
The indefatigable Falzon, who has been running the audit office on his own ever since the contract for his former investigating officer Carmel Cacopardo was not renewed last year, said: “There is no political will for enforcement. I have pointed out the same two illegalities relentlessly in my annual reports. As I mentioned again a particular case in a TV interview, I received a call from the enforcement director asking me to point out where the illegality is. There has not been any feedback so far,” he said.
Falzon said there were “strong allegations of corruption” about the lack of enforcement by MEPA in respect of illegalities in major projects. “I am shocked with what I see when I go for a walk outside in the countryside. Maybe some enforcement officers need to check their eyesight,” he said sarcastically.
Falzon complained his office was overwhelmed with work for the past year. “I worked with a close colleague who dared criticise the chairman, and therefore the minister, so he got kicked out. Now it’s all on me and I’m not coping.
“I’m just putting files in the office without working on them. There isn’t enough space in my office for files, so I’m without an office to work in,” he lamented.
Falzon said there were a number of serious problems with ODZ developments. “Recently, the DCC justified the conversion of a livestock farm into a country villa,” he lamented.
Falzon said that MEPA Boards should be more “like a jury in a trial and should not take technical decisions. A lot of the members are not technically qualified… Now that I have access to the minutes, I am shocked to see what is discussed and what is decided.”
He said Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) were “very worrying” since they are always written by an expert which is chosen and paid for by the developer. “I still have to see an EIA that does not recommend a project. A case in point was with a stone quarry located within 10 metres of a habitable area, that was deemed non-problematic after an EIA,” Falzon said.
The quality of consultation by MEPA was “at best, poor. During meetings, only those who are most vocal carry the day. If the developer is most vocal on one day, he will win. If the objector is the most vocal the following day, he will win.”
He referred to a development application for a catering establishment, whereby the recommendation was to “‘keep the place well ventilated’. Might as well keep the door open then,” Falzon said sarcastically.
The lead author of the report on MEPA reform, Martin Scicluna, also the chief executive of the Today Public Policy Institute, described the lack of observance of the law in environment matter as “endemic. It’s the Achilles Heel of Malta’s environment.”
Scicluna said that effective enforcement required three key ingredients: “First, there must be the political will to implement it. Secondly, there must be a sufficient number of enforcement officers employed and available to cope with the task. And thirdly, once enforcement has been implemented, the law courts must ensure the administration of justice reflects the seriousness of the offence and recognises the need to introduce a cultural change of respect for the environment.”
Astrid Vella, from Flimkien ghal Ambjent Ahjar (FAA), suggested case officers be rotated every few years so as not to become “too familiar with their domain, especially with regards to national projects.”
Harry Vassallo, chairperson of Alternattiva Demokratika (AD), said “no legal system, however perfected, will work if people do not work or politicians do not want it to work. It will only be after the introduction of legislation on the financing of political parties that a major spoke will come out of the works of MEPA.”
Chamber of Architects President David Thake defended the strong presence of architects in MEPA Boards. “Do we want lawyers on the boards? Do we want retailers on the boards? Do we want housewives on the boards?” he asked.
At the same time, Thake said many architects do not want to serve on MEPA boards. “We have heard of DCC members feeling embarrassed of the cases presented in front of them for consideration,” he said.
Developer Angelo Xuereb even suggested appointing Martin Scicluna as the new executive chairman, apparently finding his observations on the beleaguered planning authority welcome.