Dump the unwritten convention - http://www.timesofmalta.com/
Harry Vassallo

Never in the history of Mepa has the chairman ever been known to hold a press conference to address allegations made in a press statement by an NGO. Hats off to FAA. The message that got through to the public is that this time Mepa has lost its cool.

In my experience, those wielding power at Mepa have consistently treated private objectors, pressure groups and NGOs as well as democratically-elected public bodies such as local councils with a mixture of annoyance, irritation, even contempt. Political appointment has a cost and it often shows.

Much of Andrew Calleja's exceptional assault on objectors in his press conference dealt with the fact that no objection had been made at the Outline Permit stage and so on and so forth. Does he mean to imply that the silence of objectors to any one of the several thousand applications filed must necessarily mean approval? Does any such implied approval mean the Mepa board is somehow entitled to ignore the law, its own official remit or to step beyond its powers?

While Mepa board members are officially entrusted by the law to regulate planning according to law in the name of the whole community, every other citizen is offered the opportunity to file an objection to any given development application. There is no duty to do so and very often there are not the means to do so.

The thousands of private citizens shocked to learn about the proposed repeated rape of Ramla Bay in Gozo have been slapped in the face by the Mepa chairman for not having filed an objection in time. I truly wonder whether any of them take him seriously. They have lives to lead. They have their families to see to, their jobs to do and their own private worries to deal with. Very many of them and, particularly in Gozo, are very keenly aware of the difficulty and possible consequences to themselves and their families if they file any objection anywhere giving their names and contact details. They do not want to attract attention to themselves and will only be drawn to step into the limelight when they are utterly desperate.

They do depend on FAA, other NGOs, their local council and/or Alternattiva Demokratika - the Green party to take up the cudgels in their name. What are the resources of such bodies to deal with the onslaught of over-development? What public facilities are available? How much does it cost to file an objection, an appeal with Mepa? Where does Mepa think than not-for-profit organisations get their funding? Is putting such scarce funding in the Mepa coffers a justifiable expense? Scandalously, Mepa charges money to provide information to the public. Simply investigating a development application is expensive, investigating hundreds of them far more.

Fortunately, AD has filed an objection to the development of tens of villas on the clay slopes overlooking Ramla Bay. This entitles us to appeal, and we will. We have promised to take the matter as far as it can be taken and we will finally defeat it.

Mr Calleja has promised to resign if the statements made by FAA are finally justified. In my view he should have resigned ages ago.

During his tenure, Mepa has been guilty of a dereliction of duty on a scale that is baffling also to old campaigners like myself who feel they have seen it all already. Resigning for having been poked in the eye by FAA would be the final irony.

The Ramla Bay scandal is just the cherry on a poisoned cake prepared by the real power in the land, the construction lobby, and dutifully baked by Mepa. It takes insufferable cheek by the chairman of Mepa to defend his board by pointing to objectors' failure to file an objection in the early stages of the assault on Ramla Bay. Where in blazes was the Mepa board? Will it come into full activity only once a scandalous permit is issued and all hell breaks loose?

Does Mr Calleja realise that he presides over the planning regulator? That he does not need objections by anybody at all to do his duty? If the proper working of the planning process is so fully dependant on the participation of objectors, why do they have such a hard time of it? Why is the whole process skewed against them?

Do I need to list the incidents of insolence which objectors have had inflicted upon them? How many resident groups have been faced with fake consultation? Asked to attend Mepa meetings, their presence rationed by the capacity of a tiny room? How many of them have been rudely silenced or absurd nonsensical notes taken of their well articulated objections? Do I have to remind Mr Calleja of the absurd consultation meeting with Rabat farmers in which it was proposed to have a presentation made in English? How about the consultation at Mellieha over the sewage treatment plant that was held after the relevant construction contracts had been signed? How about the site selection process for the Marsascala waste treatment facility in which four of five sites listed could not accommodate the proposed development?

Hanging over Mr Calleja is the sword of Damocles represented by the outcome of EU Commission investigations into the extension of development areas this time last year. Running against the stated, printed and published policy of Mepa and, indeed, directly contradicting the first line of the chapter on land use in the State Of The Environment Report for 2006 just published by Mepa itself, Mepa's acquiescence to that illegality is far more serious that any eventual justification of FAA allegations in the Ramla Bay case.

Resignation is not enough. It would be far too easy. It would encourage others to be subservient to government ministers, to follow their instructions no matter what and then conveniently resign. AD is pressing for far more. If any government official or any person entrusted with legitimate authority abuses his or her power, whether in the granting of development permits or otherwise, no immunity attached to his official capacity can be raised in his or her defence.

We insist that personal liability should attach to any person who, by deliberate dereliction of duty, allows that which should be prohibited. The enormous damage to our archaeological, architectural or natural heritage, which may be caused, should not be made good from public funds but from the personal fortunes of those directly responsible.

Before any public official becomes tempted to rely too heavily on political protection from the consequences of abuse of power, whether of his or her own initiative, under the influence of fear or favour or under instructions from his or her political master, it should be made clear that the law takes no account of any such unofficial insurance. So far, there has been an unwritten convention never to bring the consequences to bear on the servants of the servants of the real power in the country. AD has given public notice that the convention no longer holds.

The Mepa chairman and all board members should have it clearly in mind that if and when they overstep their official remit, particularly by issuing permits that are unequivocally in violation of the law, they are in duty bound to uphold, they are simply private persons breaking the law and doing damage to others. Their remit is not to break the law. They have no authority to do so and there is no insurance of any kind that can protect them, not even if they resign.

Mr Calleja is now welcome to withdraw AD's Mepa privileges. Since we never enjoyed any, we will not be able to tell the difference.

Dr Vassallo is chairman of Alternattiva Demokratika - the Green party.

www.alternattiva.org.mt, www.adgozo.com
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15 Jun 2007 by Saveramla.com