Fabian Demicoli

GRTU – Position Paper on MEPA Reform

GRTU Proposals for MEPA Reform

Preamble:

The overall consensus of the Maltese public is that MEPA needs some form of reform.   Most articles in the media dwell on the fact that MEPA is insensitive to the needs of the "joe public" but lays out a red carpet treatment to the big boys who run roughshod over genuine objections by third party.   There is a general concern regarding the amount of development that has taken place over the last 20 odd years primarily fuelled by the rise in land prices and partially compensated by the designation of the penthouse level (a Government sponsored proposal) which in turn fuelled more price hikes and further housing supply.  The first time buyer market is now virtually at a standstill with the sale of quality apartments remaining buoyant.

This situation has produced a fertile environment for budding NGOs to become more vocal against indiscriminate and insensitive overdevelopment ironically  sponsored by Government itself  (e.g Pender Place, Fort Cambridge Fort Chambray, Vittoriosa Waterfront, Tigne and Manoel Island redevelopment)  signifying a major failure by MEPA to strike the proverbial balance between development and the environment.  This was primarily due to the infant MEPA buckling under pro-development political pressure in a desperate bid to survive as one of the more important government agencies.

The pro-development lobby and construction industry has consistently leveled its attacks against MEPA at its bureaucratic practices which lead to lengthy processing times for development permits especially in major projects but is also apparent in the "normal applications". 

The transition into local plans was a lengthy one (more than 10 years) however conflicting interpretation of policies is still rife and not consistent. The Structure Plan is in a dire need of revision as a strategy document and the Commission for Sustainable Development is to our knowledge non-functional.

Against this background the internal structure of MEPA struggles to keep up with its responsibilities and actions.  (Quote: MEPA Chairman- We do not have the luxury to be logical !!!). Of recent (and prior to each General Election) accusations of corrupt practices have been exchanged both internally and externally leaving by definition a negative collateral effect on the morale and  job effectiveness of the staff.

One of the critical issues is whether the environment sector should continue to form an integral part of the planning process or not. Talk to the employees of both directorates first and they will express a resounding NO.  Their opinion stems from the very real   problem of dealing on a daily basis with two, often conflicting, legislations namely the Development Planning Act and the Environmental Act.   It is pertinent to point to out that the previous Environment Protection Department and the Planning Authority empires have always been to a greater or lesser extent in continual turf wars with each other.  This situation that still persists within MEPA is to me, one of the great demotivators in sustaining healthy working relationships between the two directorates.

The decision to house the Environment Directorate away from the main MEPA building is the nail in the coffin, a conscious decision to split the two directorates without actually admitting that the two directorates have communication issues and cannot work together within the present set up.  This flies against the notion of integrated planning underpinning the so called sustainable approach the Authority should be looking at in its land use and environmental responsibilities. This decision should be critically reviewed and the possibility of expanding the current premises at St.Francis Ravelin should be taken up once again not least because the nearby park and ride zones better serve these existing premises.

What are the perceived and real problems in MEPA? 

A cause and effect analysis was used to identify the problems which currently afflict MEPA.  A Cause-and-Effect Diagram (also known as a "Fishbone Diagram") is a graphical technique for grouping people's ideas about the causes of a problem.  The identification of problems were analysed by asking:

  • o What is the problem?
  • o Who is affected?
  • o When does it occur?
  • o Where does it occur?

An overview of the internal staff dynamics reveals a number of problems:

These can probably be grouped under the title of mismanagement which is the largest contributor for staff demotivation.

  • 1. Undefined roles– Conflict between the roles of the DG, DOP and Chairmen DCC ( and board members) at a higher level and enforcement officers in the planning and environmental directorate at the lower level is symptomatic of this situation.. The recent set up of the Strategy group although good in principle is not transparent in its proceedings. Decisive decisions are crucial
  • 2. Lack of co-ordination and co-operation between the different units– primarily between the environmental and planning directorates is the main problem here.
  • 3. Mini-Empires– DOP vs DG vs Chairman block and Liaison office ( set up to create bridges between the Directorates and the Boards) . This is direct political interference in the planning process
  • 4. Lack of knowledgeable staff – particularly in design issues at case officer level.
  • 5. General lack of interest -due to the perception that staff cannot effect change to the status quo.

 

 

MAIN IDENTIFIED PROBLEM IS LACK OF LEADERSHP AND MANAGEMENT

What do we expect from MEPA as its users and its customers?

The Maltese population are all potential users and customers of MEPA.  MEPA can never please all its users and customers at the same time by definition however transparency in its proceedings and explanation of its decisions are crucial to mitigate this situation.

MEPA should:

  • 1. Inspire confidence in its decision taking
  • 2. Be fair with all its customers
  • 3. Be transparent in it proceedings
  • 4. Be seen not to be influenced by political pressure
  • 5. Be consistent in its decision taking
  • 6. Be efficient in its decision taking process
  • 7. Be pro-active in its customer care
  • 8. Consistently carry out enforcement actions as a deterrent
  • 9. Set up mechanisms to update its policies in a continual fashion
  • 10. Be led by good practices both in the ethical and professional sense

 

 

 

 

 

What are the possible solutions?

It is GRTU's opinion that incremental change is much better than the grand solution approach to MEPA woes.

Areas that need special and immediate attention however are:

  • 1. Improving MEPA's image through a total review of its customer service and care;
  • – Favorable treatment should be given to developers that choose to accept favourable conditions for the environment above the minimum required.

 

 

  • 2. Improving the decision process at all levels with related accountability timeliness and consistency

 

To be able to carry out these changes the setting up of a Change Team under the auspices of OPM is set up.  Representatives on this change team should include a key person which would be the right person to step in the Chairman's/ CEO role, a member of a revamped Users Committee, NGO member, Operations Manager, legal representative and PR office as key members.

Improving the decision process at all levels with related accountability timeliness and consistency

  • 1. Improve management structure by reviewing performance of key people in key positions. Consider merging the roles of the directors (i.e. DG, DOP and DOE) into one as a CEO function. If necessary consider golden handshakes to remove staff.
  • 2. Improve current liaison office into a fully fledged customer Call Centre (possibly with extended hours)
  • 3. Consider the removal of chessclock mechanism in Development Control
  • – A specific period for determination is established on the date of submission of application. Especially where the determination of applications are straight forward, as in the case of the building scheme, MEPA has to become much more efficient.
  • 4. Set up one full time DCC board with competent professionals (good remuneration) with environmental permitting competencies included.
  • 5. Review workings of Major Projects as a negotiating team
  • 6. Set up continual training programs for DC staff
  • – Staff must be well trained and capable of being good mediators and address anomalies that might arise. These should meet regularly with the chairman so that it is ensured that one direction is kept.
  • 7. Initiate process of merging the Development Planning Act and the Environmental Act.
  • 8. To be able to tackle current backlog within the ODZ team (around 900 cases) the introduction or redeployment of 5 case officers is necessary
  • – GRTU is in favour of MEPA becoming more stringent in its approach to ODZ, particularly in sensitive and designated sites (e.g. Natura 2000 sites, Wardija, Zebbiegh, Bidnija, ect…)
  • 9. Consider the introduction of MEPA being made liable to damage due to its administrative mistakes.
  • – Unfortunately much harm is done through inconsistency and lack of predictability due to the huge investments property developers make. For this reason one should not permit that revision of policies harm the investments already made. When a revision or an introduction of a new policy is made there should be a cut off date from when it will start to apply following a transition period.
  • – When one has a deemed approval MEPA should be obliged to issue the permit and not be subject to interpretation. More importantly when a permit is issued it must not be revoked afterwards.
  • – MEPA should never, unless in extraordinary cases move away from what is written in black and white. When MEPA decides to differ from what is written the concession should be given to everyone.
  • – For extraordinary cases where the written procedures do not give clear enough guidelines a board should be set up to decide. The are several mistakes and missing parts in the Local Plan and therefore it should be redone for 2008 and only this would apply and the ones before become irrelevant. This would alleviate the problem with interpretation.
  • 10. Streamline DC consultation process (one stop shop) however outside agencies should bear responsibility for non-response. (Exception : Museums Department)
  • – For major projects it is suggested that there should be the possibility of relaxing planning policies with the aim of achieving sustainable development. A pre-submission meeting with MEPA and potentially effected residents should be held in the specific case where policy does not fit the proposed development.
  • 11. Development Briefs for Government projects should be done outside of MEPA
  • 12. Review of local plans (rationalization sites) needs a more professional approach
  • 13. New Structure Plan to be published (sustainable development to be the main driving force)
  • 14. Review the setting up of an EIA Commission (on the Dutch Model)
  • 15. Introduce user empowerment
  • – On submission of application only 10 % of the amount is paid by the applicant. The full amount would be paid on the final authorization. This for the simple reason that they are paying for a pricy service which is being given very poorly.

 

 

How does one put the reform into practice?

GRTU believes there is a lot of talent within the organisation which needs to be tapped so that the reform is owned by the individual employee and not just by management and /or Government. Too many reports have been written which advocated change most of which were top down impositions.   

The process of the reform is perhaps more crucial than the actual content. Speak to all the staff. Let them come up with their own suggestions. Give them back their pride to be part of an important organisation.  Motivating the staff will tease out those logical and in most cases simple suggestions that can make the whole difference.  However, this change process must assume strong central leadership with the critical stakeholders on board perhaps in the form of a think tank groups made up of both technical and non-technical experts.

GRTU wants to be involved in the reform process as we believe we can give a valid contribution to the aim of meeting a balance between the environment and sustainable development. This should be so also for the revision of the local plans and structure plans.

 

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