Editorial | Sunday, 11 April 2010

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Better late than never

All those present for last Thursday’s Malta Environment & Planning Authority board meeting, ably chaired by Austin Walker, could not but note a dramatic change in the way MEPA tackles applications to sanction buildings built outside development schemes.
The puzzled faces of the few incredulous Gozitan squatters present, who clearly could not believe what had hit them, summed it all up. The contrast between last Thursday’s meeting and four board meetings held in February 2008 – when dozens of boathouses were sanctioned on the eve of the general election – could not be more evident.
By refusing to accept any of the 17 applications, even when these had the blessing of MEPA’s own planning directory, the board chaired by Austin Walker has courageously drawn a line and set a precedent for the future, rather than allow itself get bogged down in the mire of precedents set in the past.
Walker also deserves credit for assuming full personal responsibility for what was to all intents and purposes a U-turn on behalf of the much-maligned authority.
One may well criticise the decision on the grounds that it has created two distinct classes of boathouse owners: those lucky enough to get their boathouse sanctioned before the election; and those who ‘missed the boat’ – having had their cases deferred on that occasion, only to find their application turned down by a new board with a new way of doing things.
More ominously, one might also argue that the latest board decision raises serious doubts regarding the legitimacy of the pre-electoral sanctioning of boathouses. But this newspaper has always disagreed with the view that bad decisions taken in the past should bind the present board to pursue the same path in future. If this were the case, MEPA would never be able to rehabilitate its dented credibility.
By choosing to turn over a new leaf and effectively distance himself from the ghosts of permits past, MEPA chairman Austin Walker has set a new precedent both for himself and for the authority. It is a pity that only a few weeks earlier, the same MEPA board gave its blessing to a modified version of the restaurant disguised as an interpretation centre, right in the middle of the Dwejra national park (after being rejected three times on previous occasions).
The restaurant was only approved in view of the same action plan which paved the way for the pre-electoral approval of boathouses. Clearly, there in an inconsistency staring us all in the face.
But still, it’s a case of better late than never. Walker has now set a new yardstick by which MEPA’s performance can be measured in future. Not only that: but by refusing to sanction any boathouse which was not visible on any map dating back to 1965, Walker has gone beyond the scope of the earlier MEPA report, which had stipulated an exemption from the ban on sanctioning for illegal developments carried out before 2007.
It will be interesting to observe how Walker will now tackle cases of illegal development involving big land speculators, who have often faced MEPA with a fait accompli by developing entire structures like batching plants, villas and even hotels without the necessary permits.
Some of these ‘applications to sanction’ are still pending, and Walker will be expected to show the same resolve against these illegal developments that he showed on Thursday against the relatively small illegal boathouses.
Meanwhile the government may wish to go one step forward, and enshrine the new Walker doctrine into law by decreeing that any illegal development carried out outside the development zones must be completely removed before MEPA even considers any new application on the same site.
One also expects that all the boathouses to have been denied a permit will now be demolished. For it would be useless if MEPA were to now simply turn a blind eye to illegal development in Dwejra. Unless MEPA’s words are backed by actions, Walker would have simply taken us for a ride.
Surely, the spectacle of bulldozers demolishing some boathouses while passing over those approved before the 2008 election will be a surreal one. But this is the price the present administration must pay, if it is to exorcise the ghosts of its past decisions.
It will also be interesting to see whether the government will honour its pre-electoral commitment with the Armier Boathouse owners to redevelop Malta’s largest shanty town by granting a company owned by the squatters legal title over public land usurped in the past.
We strongly encourage the government to publicly renege on this agreement. For as was the case with the Dwejra boathouses, we believe that it is better to make one mistake and rectify it, than to err repeatedly.

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Better late than never

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