News | Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Auditor report reopens MEPA can of worms

James Debono

A report by internal Auditor Joe Falzon re-opens a can of worms at the Malta Environment and Planning Authority with a number of permits issued before last March’s election coming under the auditor’s scrutiny. These include a permit issued on the eve of the election for a villa instead of a pig farm belonging to Safi mayor Pietru Pawl Busuttil, an ODZ supermarket in Luqa constructed by Charles Polidano on land where a previous developer claims to have had his request for a permit turned down three times and the furnishing of illegal buildings with water and electricity.

Villa instead of pig farm
Falzon reprimanded MEPA for using a newly-approved agricultural policy as the pretext to justify an outline permit it granted to Safi’s Nationalist mayor Peter Paul Busuttil to construct his bungalow and swimming pool outside development zones on his former pig farm.
Falzon started investigating this case following reports on Kulhadd and MaltaToday.
The permit was issued a few weeks before the general elections.
Falzon lambasted MEPA’s – Policy and Design Guidance: Agriculture, Farm Diversification and Stables – as “a recipe for abuse”.
This policy states that an existing farm building may be converted to a dwelling subject to a number of conditions.
According to Falzon, all a developer needs to convert a farm into residential units is a document from the Director of Veterinary Services that the building cannot be used for agriculture.
“The ease with which the applicant of the case under consideration obtained the required certificate clearly indicates what is likely to happen.”
Falzon also questions the motives behind this
policy and calls on the Authority to revoke it.
“Maybe it was intended to provide a possibility for those who wanted to obtain a dwelling in the countryside – at the expense of society which has to put up with more urban sprawl in a countryside which is continuously diminishing.”
In his investigation on the Safi mayor’s permit, Falzon reprimanded the DCC board for not seeking the advice of the Planning Directorate when it decided to apply the policy on the conversion of disused farm building.
When contacted, Busuttil claimed that his farm has stood abandoned for the past ten years and is now unsuitable to rear animals because two boreholes are extracting water in its vicinity.
But in his report Falzon claims that when the farm was built twenty years ago, farmers were already expected to seek the consent of the authorities responsible for water resources.
“Why was there was no objection to the development (related to boreholes) when it was first constructed?”
Falzon is calling on MEPA to change its policy to ensure that if a farm building can no longer be used for its intended purpose, it is demolished and the land returned to its original state.

Polidano’s Supermarkets
Following his damning report of MEPA’s approval of an application by Polidano Brothers to build a supermarket in Safi, Falzon reveals that he currently investigating the building of another ODZ supermarket by the same developer in Luqa.
Falzon started his investigation after the original owner of the land complained that his requests to develop the same land was turned down on three occasions by MEPA.
“Subsequently he sold his land to the present developer who had no difficulty to obtain the development permit requested.”
The case is still being investigated and a report should be published shortly.
In 2007 MaltaToday had revealed that MEPA ignored the negative recommendations of the Civil Aviation Department and the Malta International Airport when assessing the Luqa supermarket application which lies in proximity to the airport’s runway.

Illegal Development
The auditor refers to an owner of a block of apartments who illegally built an extra floor over ten years ago. After ten years, despite a pending enforcement notice, the developer managed to sell some of the illegal apartments and these were even provided with electricity and water supply.
Falzon claims that the MEPA Chairman told him that the authority had no intention to investigate the service providers for providing the water and electricity supply to illegal buildings, which is illegal as it breaches the Development Planning Act.
“No reasons were given for this decision,” says Falzon.
The Development Planning Act forbids the transfer of property which is subject to an enforcement notice.
But Falzon claims that he was never given an explanation on why no real effective action was taken.

Galdes appointment illegal
MEPA Auditor Joe Falzon also reiterated his view first expressed in MaltaToday in September 2008, on the appointment of Roderick Galdes as the opposition’s representative on the MEPA board.
“I believe that this goes against the provisions of Article 3(5)(b) of the Development Planning Act,” contends Falzon.
The article forbids public officers from serving on the MEPA board.
Falzon also claims that Galdes’ double role as MEPA employee and MEPA board member “results in a conflict between his duties as a MEPA employee and his duties as a Board member”.
He also claims that Galdes’ contribution as a MEPA Board member will be very limited as he will have to decline to participate in the deliberations of the Board as he would have a direct personal interest in the decisions taken.
Galdes had previously rebutted that the ban on public service employment only applies to the independent members on the board and not to the two MPs who also serve on the board.
“In no way can one refer to my position in the board as an independent one, considering the fact that I was nominated by the Leader of the Opposition as an MP,” Galdes said in his letter to the auditor.
For the same reason, Falzon also expressed his concern that the appointment of new MEPA Chairman Austin Walker on a fulltime basis could also be illegal contrary to the provisions of the Development Planning Act.
“This would have meant that all the actions of the MEPA were null as the MEPA Board was not properly constituted.”
But the Auditor claims that “the matter has been settled to his satisfaction” following a letter sent by the Attorney General to the Prime Minister which concluded that the appointment of the Chairman was not contrary to the provisions of the law.

Depleted resources
The Audit Office had to decline a request to carry out an investigation due to lack of resources after a member of the public sent a letter requesting an investigation of 2000 ODZ permits.
Falzon notes that the request was very appropriate and in the circumstances merited a detailed investigation.
In his report Falzon complains of a backlog of complaints accumulating since MEPA refused to re-appoint Carmel Cacopardo as his investigating officer.
But now that his office will start sharing its resources with the Office of the Ombudsman, Falzon is confident that investigations will be concluded within a reasonable period.



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22 April 2009

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