If Lorry Sant were alive today, he would no doubt feel vindicated by the MEPA reform announced last Thursday.
After all, if the country’s planning regime has changed at all in the 22 years since Sant was minister for public works, it was mainly to ensure that the excesses of that period – when development permits were granted or withheld at the minister’s whim – would never be repeated.
Shortly after taking office, Prime Minister Eddie Fenech Adami set in motion a chain of events culminating in the establishment the Malta Environment & Planning Authority: replacing a previous regime, whereby policy lay exclusively in the hands of a single minister.
But as Malta’s environmental consciousness grew with the turn of the millennium, MEPA increasingly came to be perceived as having arrogated unto itself all the abusive power and unaccountability previously associated with Lorry Sant.
Such were the levels of popular discontent with the planning authority – sparking numerous anti-government protests by environmentalists who tend overwhelmingly to be moderate Nationalists – that it became politically expedient for the Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi to make a rash pre-election promise of MEPA “reform”.
The express intention was to salvage the government’s ailing green credentials, while at the same time improving the authority’s efficiency and cutting back red tape.
To be fair it was always going to be a difficult (some would say impossible) compromise; but with the reforms unveiled last Thursday, it seems that the Prime Minister is recommending the least likely option imaginable: i.e., simply turning the clock back to a time when planning policy lay exclusively in the hands of a single politician (in this case, himself).
Those who have welcomed this reform have evidently failed to take on board its more sinister implications. Two immediate observations spring to mind: one, that contrary to the impression given by the reform document, “government policy” with regard to the environment is at best vague, at worst non-existent.
Despite claims to pursue a policy of “sustainable development”, decisions taken by MEPA (and supposedly consonant with government policy) have often amounted to the exact opposite. A typical example would be the chaotic situation currently unfurling at Tigné, with the bizarre decision to permit another large-scale residential development at Fort Cambridge: a project approved without taking into consideration infrastructural constraints, and without an environment impact assessment.
As a result, the Qui-Si-Sana peninsula is now second to Manhattan in New York for population density (only without that city’s refined public transport system). If this is “sustainable development”, one shudders to think what the government would consider “unsustainable”.
The second observation is that Lawrence Gonzi himself has to date failed to impress with his own environmental credentials. This is after all the same Lawrence Gonzi who extended the development zones in 2005 – a blatant exercise in encouraging speculation and rampant over-development, which was rightly deplored by all Malta’s environmental NGOs.
Even earlier, the Prime Minister had embarked on a short-lived fantasy of littering Malta and Gozo with golf courses, until expensive EIAs finally convinced him that it might not be such a good idea after all. It is worth remembering also that Gonzi had instructed MEPA, no less, to identify possible sites for these imaginary golf courses – suggesting that even in 2004, the PM already perceived the authority as an extension of his own office.
Now, it appears that this same extension concept has been formalised into a situation whereby the Prime Minister himself dictates planning policy, and also assumes full political responsibility for the institution that implements it.
This is an unsound and dangerous development, which also has uncomfortable political implications. It was only last year that Gonzi struck a deal with the owners of illegal beach huts at Armier, in what was widely criticised as a transparent bid to assuage a large lobby ahead of the March election.
If Gonzi was capable of sacrificing Armier for his own political gain, what sort of planning decisions are we to expect before the next election, by which time the Prime Minister would be fully in control of the country’s policy-making an implementation machinery?
Yet another consideration involves the promised law to govern party financing, which has yet to materialise. Even when MEPA was supposedly autonomous, in practice it proved incapable of bringing to heel large, well-heeled contractors known or suspected to have close links with political parties. With this in mind, one can only question whether the Prime Minister himself is aware of the potential for blackmail to which he will be exposed by his own MEPA reform.