29 November 2006

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MEPA auditor questions chairman’s meetings with applicants

James Debono

The participation of the Malta Environment and Planning Authority chairman in meetings attended by developers and MEPA staff has been questioned by the Audit Office of the same organisation.
It’s another sign of the ongoing rift between MEPA and its internal critic, auditor Joe Falzon, which resurfaced again in the organisation’s annual report presented to the press yesterday.
MEPA’s annual report includes a report by all its various organs including the audit office. But only in the latter’s case did MEPA include its own defence.
This year’s damning report is the last one to be signed by Joe Falzon, the dean of the Faculty of Architecture, as his term expires in four months’ time.
Falzon said that by meeting developers and objectors, the chairman is sending conflicting messages to both parts as well as to the MEPA staff attending these meetings. He said it was reasonable for chairman Andrew Calleja to participate in meetings involving developers and objectors, but that this could lead those participating in these meetings to believe that decisions have been taken. “The discussions which develop in these meetings easily lead to conclusions which would eventually be deemed as decisions to be followed,” he warned.
Falzon recommended that meetings should be carried out by the director of planning, and that detailed minutes be kept. He said the chairman has no executive role in MEPA and that “the assumption by the MEPA chairman of executive duties is resulting in overlaps with the duties of the MEPA director general.”
The report recommended the chairman should limit his activities to monitoring the workings of the different MEPA organs.
In its reply, MEPA defended the chairman’s participation in any meetings he deemed necessary to help unblock situations where proposals get jammed. According to MEPA, the chairman’s role in these meetings simply facilitates communication when developers take an unreasonable stand or where the directorate takes a stand which is “excessively technocratic”.
The auditor also expressed his preoccupation on informal briefings involving the board and the planning directorate which he said were not open to the public “thereby circumventing the provisions of the Development Planning Act,” which requires public scrutiny of the planning process.
MEPA said that in these meetings no decisions are taken but the auditor insisted that “the mere consideration of an application is sufficient to oblige the MEPA board to hold the meeting open to the public.” MEPA claimed that its legal advisors had assured the authority these meetings were compliant with the law.
Falzon also bemoaned the lack of effective enforcement action against illegal development, accusing government departments of flouting the law and “ridiculing” enforcement procedures.
Yesterday MEPA said it only had 28 enforcement officers for Malta and Gozo, while chairman Andrew Calleja called for “more comprehension” from the audit office and criticised Falzon for ignoring or being selective when quoting MEPA’s reactions in his reports.

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