Interview | Sunday, 07 March 2010

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Towering over a mountain of issues

Flimkien ghal Ambjent Ahjar co-ordinator Astrid Vella has often come down on MEPA and abusive developers like a ton of bricks, opening her up to criticism and the odd personal attack. Can she take the heat?

Flimkien Għal Ambjent Aħjar (FAA) co-ordinator Astrid Vella must not be underestimated because of her pocket-sized stature. When she screams blue murder at the threat of heritage destruction, MEPA permits are likely to take a different shape. Next Saturday she will be leading yet another rally, this time calling on government to enforce existing laws against ODZ encroachment, Structure Plan violations, and unauthorised groundwater extraction. Yet, her battles defending the environment throughout the past four years have earned her the reputation of saying no to anything in limestone or concrete.
She starts by disagreeing.
“This is far from the truth,” she said. “It is a myth that certain quarters have an interest in perpetuating. We (FAA) have not objected to a good number of major projects such as the Metropolis and Savoy Gardens which have a strong regeneration element, while the Mellieħa Holiday Complex has a good track record in green development. We also supported the Smart City development because of its expected economic impact. We are a very pragmatic group and encourage investment in heritage projects that include job-creation and economic benefits. But it is only bad news that makes the press and in fact, many of our positive statements are never carried by the media.”
It is not the first time that Vella has been subjected to public attacks. Gossip columnist Daphne Caruana Galizia, for instance, is being taken to court by the environmental lobbyist for alleged slander. But Vella instituted libel proceedings at the height of ‘plategate’ – Caruana Galizia’s attack on Consuelo Scerri-Herrera in a bid to hush down news of a police report on domestic violence filed by Caruana Galizia’s husband. The blogging saga eventually got out of hand.
But considering that the content on Vella was published in Daphne’s blog as far as four months ago, Vella’s action may seem a little ill-timed now. “I am represented by Joe Giglio’s legal office and Ian Spiteri Bailey is the libel expert there,” she explained. “We had to wait for him (Spiteri Bailey) to complete his term at the MEPA Appeals Board since we wanted to make sure there would be no conflict of interest…”
She said that she was bound by an 11 February deadline to submit the case, and consequently “we had to start the proceedings at the height of the Daphne-Consuelo debacle so people got the wrong impression that the two were related.”
In her slating of Scerri-Herrera, Caruana Galizia also revealed details of her romantic life with architect and PN Siggiewi mayor Robert Musumeci, who months ago also instituted libel proceedings against Astrid Vella herself. Such a war of public figures was, admittedly, somewhat confusing. But Vella was not in a mood to broach the Musumeci subject, so she opted for concision (or is it ambiguity?) in her reply: “Robert Musumeci’s action against me was some months ago and it is in fact suspended.
“Daphne’s fixation is reflecting much worse on her than it is on us,” she said. “We have nothing to hide, whereas Daphne’s fake allegations and insinuations can only compromise her further as regards her case. By the way, all expenses in this case are being borne solely by me personally and not by FAA.”
Moving on. FAA has been campaigning for a reform at MEPA since the association’s inception in 2006. Its first action in fact, was a letter sent to parliament in this regard. Vella feels that certain aspects which they have been lobbying for were addressed in the reform. These include the restructuring of the DCC board and the extended rights for objectors, the dropping of reconsiderations and tightening of the appeals process in countryside and heritage cases.
But she qualifies her statement by saying that “in order to avoid permits such as that to demolish part of the Qormi Knights’ Armoury, we are also suggesting that the different heritage boards come together as one body under the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage, so that developers or DCC boards would not be able to take advantage of contradictory recommendations.
“It is positive that the DCC board members are going to be employed on a full time basis and not as part-timers with a private practice as it used to be,” she added. “But of course the MEPA DCC boards are not the only ones that exist within MEPA. We are concerned by the level of political control that will still exist in a reformed MEPA as proposed. All appointees are still to be selected by the Prime Minister or Minister involved, and are therefore open to influence – especially since no action has been taken on disclosure of political party funding. This way, politicians are still susceptible to pressure from major developers. For this reason, we maintain that MEPA reform rests on the integrity of its members and officials – so unless the code of ethics is strengthened by sanctions in case of abuse as envisaged by the criminal code, we are still leaving the door open to abuse. Resignations are no longer enough.”
Critics contend that the reform failed to set up an environmental authority independent of planning.
“In theory I would say that due to a lack of resources, it makes sense that planning and environment fall under the same roof. However, years of experience have taught us that this just does not work.”
The latest Cabinet reshuffle saw tourism parliamentary secretary Mario de Marco take on environment under his wing. And yet, de Marco fell short of being promoted to minister.
“Both the environment and tourism ministries deserve a ministry of their own. Fortunately, there are marked common interests between the two and fusing them may well boost tourist arrivals. Tourists are increasingly put off by Malta’s shabbiness and its lack of open spaces. It is known that this is one of the reasons why many don’t return. Protecting the environment from overdevelopment is paramount, especially at a time when employment figures in the tourism industry have dropped.”
Wouldn’t de Marco do a better job if he had to have more powers as a minister?
“As long as Dr de Marco’s high ideals are reflected in the end results, we have no problem with him being a parliamentary secretary rather than a minister. Our fear is that this will not always be the case.”
Before the 2008 general elections Gonzi promised that he would address the environmental deficit. Did Astrid believe him then? Has he managed to do so?
“I did believe him, and no, he did not manage. We have been bitterly disappointed in many sectors, particularly those of legality, enforcement, protection of the countryside and real – as opposed to sham – public consultation.”
Before every election FAA declares its political neutrality. Even the protest against former PN president Victor Scerri’s farmhouse was held after the MEP elections, even though the case was known before. This could lead some to suspect that Vella shies away from criticising the government on the eve of an election.
“FAA is known to criticise the government whenever necessary,” she retorts. “So much so, that the electorate is very familiar with the government’s track record on environmental matters well ahead of any election. FAA is quiet for some time before an election because, given its non-partisan status, it does not want to influence the outcome of the election in any way.”
Both FAA and the Ramblers Association have been accused of persecuting Victor Scerri even after MEPA revoked one of the permits.
“We maintain that the earlier permits (of Scerri’s Baħrija farmhouse) were highly irregular due to the architect’s failure to provide certain elements which were critical to the case, therefore they should also have been revoked – keeping in mind that this is no ordinary ODZ, but a Natura 2000 site on which only limited public facilities may be built.”
FAA was set up when a Sliema house with unique historical features was demolished, “in spite of the fact that the permit broke nine MEPA regulations and a police law,” Vella says.
The outrage that followed led to the formation of the group. “The FAA committee was formed spontaneously and was voted for at our last AGM,” Astrid says. “However we’re now looking forward to the next one, where we hope that new people and younger blood will stand for election and take a more active role.”
FAA nowadays has approximately 550 registered members. In spite of the known fact that FAA and Alternattiva Demokratika share a similar platform, Vella never came out explicitly praising the Green Party’s political ideology. Does she consider AD to be an ally or a rival? One can argue that without the risk of losing votes to AD, the major parties would not have taken up green issues...
“We definitely see a role for a Green Party in Malta,” she said. “Apart from environmental politics, we feel that a third party in parliament would help diffuse the damaging polarisation that paralyses Maltese politics and society. Since our stand is strongly non-partisan, we neither see AD as an ally nor as a rival. Although we share much of the party’s outlook, we definitely have no stronger contacts and ties with them than we do with other parties.”
FAA does not receive any government funding so far, but this does not mean that it is not open to the idea as long as “there are no strings attached”.
“Our statute precludes us from taking over the management of government property for restoration or any such use. I think politicians have realised that they cannot exert pressure on us to influence the positions we take. We treasure our independence and they would be wasting their time if that were their aim.”
FAA has recently called a press conference on the 2006 rationalisation of Outside Development Zones. Are they challenging the permits issued in the past two years on land included in the rationalisation scheme?
“At the launch of the rationalisation scheme, former Environment Minister George Pullicino had claimed that no vetting by the Strategic Environment Impact Assessment (SEA) audit team was required,” she said. “He had also said the scheme was launched to give plot owners the opportunity to build homes for their children and that the scheme would famously ‘seal the development boundaries’. We had claimed that Pullicino was incorrect and in time we were proven right.
“As soon as we instituted a court case against government, which is still being heard, for the non-implementation of the SEA Directive, a key member of the SEA Audit Team resigned. When the Rationalisation Plans were published it was revealed that large tracts of land, which included hundreds of plots, were to be developed by one single entity, therefore they were intended for speculation and not home ownership. The 3% take-up of the countryside quoted at the time was immediately exceeded and the launch of the rationalisation spurred a veritable avalanche of ODZ applications. This is still going on: not only are hundreds of plots all over the islands being sold as having permits when they do not, but building up more of the countryside will cause more flooding, less rainwater filling the aquifer (Malta’s main water supply), less tourism and fewer long-term jobs.
“We are now urging the public to join us in writing to the new EU Environment Commissioner Dr Janez Potocnik and petition the European Parliament in order to resolve the case.”
Vella does not make much of the Labour Party either. She claims that its environmental credentials are “very hard to assess”.
“Leo Brincat certainly has the right approach, but then the PL comes out with a poorly-developed stand in favour of a Gozo airport. The proof of the pudding is in the eating – and this has not been possible so far. Both parties refuse to commit themselves on overdevelopment, and politicians are only fudging when they say that they will go by MEPA rules, knowing that the authority refuses to act on overdevelopment. Both parties have an abysmal record in environmental abuse.”

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