Mepa boycott against green NGO still on -
Following the withdrawal of the Ramla permits...
Mepa acted diligently - Sylvana Debono
Wed, 10 October 2007
david vella

Despite the fact that the environmental NGOs were proven right as the permits for a construction project at Ramla l-Hamra had to be revoked, Mepa has still not withdrawn a boycott it had arrogantly issued against ‘Flimkien ghal Ambjent Ahjar’.

A spokesperson for Andrew Calleja, the Malta Environment and Planning Authority (Mepa) chairman, confirmed that the boycott, which was criticised even by the environment minister, is still on. At the same time, she described further questions on the matter sent by this e-newspaper as an attempt to “produce sensational stories.”

Far from considering this matter lightly, the organisation itself is arguing that Mepa's behaviour is in breach of international conventions to which Malta is a signatory.

Chairman declared boycott

The boycott was declared by Calleja himself, on 11 June, a few days after his authority issued the permit for 23 villas on the slopes of the picturesque bay in Gozo. Then, he had told journalists that ‘Flimkien ghal Ambjent Ahjar’ (FAA), “would be under boycott with requests for meetings until such time it decides to substantiate or withdraw the serious accusations levied at the MEPA Board members.”

This week asked the chairman whether or not the controversial boycott issued in June has been withdrawn. In reply, Sylvana Debono, the chairman’s spokesperson, told that “none of the allegations made against the authority regarding irregularities on its part were even minimally substantiated.” Through this statement, the environment ‘watchdog’ confirmed it is still up in arms against one of the major green NGOs on the island.

“No authority should boycott citizens”

In reaction, Astrid Vella, a spokesperson for the organisation, explained that the irregularities were not only substantiated, but were also the main reason why the board was forced to revoke the same permits last week. “In its withdrawal of the Ramla permit, MEPA has come round to exactly what we were saying from the start, that Article 39A should be invoked due to fraudulent information being submitted. This is what had brought on the boycott. Refusing to lift it at this stage denotes a pettiness that reflects badly on MEPA, not on FAA... one fundamental issue which has to be clearly outlined is that no authority or institution should ever contemplate the boycott of citizens. When this happens, something gets badly thwarted in the democratic process of the land. This is even more true for an organisation such as MEPA, which should always act and appear to act for the common good of the nation."

FAA also noted that the boycott is a serious violation of the Aarhus Convention, which defends environmentalists against discrimination and harassment. Vella reminded that "Malta is a signatory to this Convention, for which MEPA is the regulatory body, therefore we have a situation where the ultimate authority in Malta on the Aarhus Convention has perpetrated violations that it is bound to prevent."

In itself, the boycott against the organisation has not yet hindered FAA from obtaining any information or service from the authority. Yet, as Debono herself confirmed through her replies, it has not yet been officially withdrawn. As she explained, Mepa’s boycott “did not refute any of the rights the NGO had, but, was reserving Mepa’s right to apportion its time as it saw fit.”

The permit condition…

Soon after Andrew Calleja and another nine officials of the 11-member board he chairs voted in favour of the building of 23 villas at Ramla l-Hamra, FAA had publicly called for the resignation of the authority’s board, “in view of the irregularities raised at the hearing.” It even called on the Prime Minister to launch an inquiry into the case. During a press conference, the NGO said: “FAA invokes Article 39a by which a permit is annulled in the case of misleading information being used in the approval of the said permit.”

Last week, the Mepa board met to decide upon a technical report submitted by the Save Ramla Action Group, one of the NGOs that along with FAA have been lobbying for the annulment of the Ramla l-Hamra permit. Together, these NGOs had even organised a mass protest in Valletta, where hundreds of Maltese and Gozitans called on government to stop the destruction of Gozo’s natural heritage.

The technical reports called on the Mepa board to revoke the permit as stipulated by Article 39a, which states that “the authority may, only in the cases of fraud or where public safety is concerned or where there is an error on the face of the record, by order revoke or modify any development permission.” The report revealed that part of the land covered by the permit was in fact public land, and not owned by the developer.

Thus, the developer could not meet one of the conditions of the permit, which called on him to sign a public deed with Mepa not to transfer any part of the complex unless it is being sold as a complete business concern. Since part of the land was not his property, the deed could not be made, and the permit had to be revoked.

Mepa’s “diligence”

In reply to questions on whether or not the Mepa chairman will resign now that the permit he strongly defended has been revoked, the authority’s spokesperson said “one would have expected your esteemed paper to highlight the fact that it was due to the diligence and attention to detail at the time of approving the development that the public interest was safeguarded from speculation.”

But in truth, the condition calling for a public deed was only attached to the permit after the intervention of an FAA member during June’s Mepa board hearing which issued the permit. The environmentalist had insisted that the developers were stating that the villas were going to be a tourist complex only to get their hands on the permit. Then, eventually the construction can be sold off as individual residential units. It was here that Mepa’s lawyers suggested a public deed.

The condition obliging the developer to submit this public deed was written down along with the other permit conditions there and then, just before the vote was taken. Far from being “diligence and attention to detail” on the part of Mepa, as Debono insisted, the condition which eventually doomed the developer would have never been included had the environmentalist NGO (now boycotted by Mepa) not raised the point before the permits were issued.

Moreover, it was only after ‘Save Ramla’ filed a technical report revealing that part of the land on which the developers were to build the villas was in fact government-owned property, that the authority’s legal advisors realised that the developer could not provide for the required deed.
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10 Oct 2007 by