Friday, 31 July 2009

Politically Charged Mepa

31st August 2009

The Malta Independent - Friday Wisdom

We did not need the post-election survey conducted by the European Parliament among all 27 EU member states to tell us that Malta is the most politically charged country of the union. We knew it, we live it day in day out and I would say that most of us probably enjoy it.

So when it comes to reforming a politically charged organisation like Mepa in a politically super-charged country, then it is quite unavoidable that you get a very politically hyper-charged discussion.

The proposed reform is built on two main pillars. The first is that policy setting migrates back to the structures of central government; the second is that implementation of such policy be delegated to Mepa’s full time employees who are not subject to political appointment and could in theory be trusted to implement such policy in a consistent, transparent and fair manner.

A former PN minister who was instrumental in the setting up of Mepa’s predecessor, the Planning Authority, (and who has often been critical of it for usurping ‘Unplanned Authority’) has been highly critical of the proposed reform arguing that it would be political suicide for the PN. According to former PN Minister Michael Falzon this would make government politically responsible for the downright inefficiencies, arrogance and incompetence of Mepa full time staff who are more interested in finding reasons, sometimes through creative and inconsistent interpretation of their own policies, for refusing applications for trivial development from the ordinary citizens, and then go out of their way to accommodate applications by the large developers.

It is shameful that we have come to the stage where we have to argue who is the least untrustworthy between elected political representatives and professional apolitical staff of a public organisation. Because basically that is what the whole argument is all about! And if we needed any proof that the Mepa reform revolves around such a simple choice, it came pretty fast with the Bahrija development case involving the former PN President Dr Victor Scerri.

Maybe before devising reform policies to cure a malady which we have probably not yet understood, this Bahrija case ought to be a classic for proper dissection and autopsy to try to really understand all that is wrong with Mepa

Let’s stick to the known facts. A permit has been issued in various stages. All agree that it should never have been issued as it infringes various Mepa policies. Scerri’s main defence indeed has not been that he was entitled to have the permit issued, but that he cannot be made responsible for errors made by others in approving the permit he applied for.

So the question that is leaving us all baffled is why was the permit repeatedly approved by the DCC when it was recommended for refusal by the case officers. If a DCC committee composed of several persons coming from different walks of life, who meet and deliberate in public, cannot be trusted to take rational decisions without being influenced by the political weight of the applicant, then we have a problem with the whole fabric of society in upholding values for performing a professional job without fear or favour.

Which basically means that the problem will not be solved purely by rendering the DCC composed of full time employees rather than part-time political appointees! Who says that full time employees are less likely to be overwhelmed by the political or commercial weight of the applicant?

Indeed one may argue that they may be even more influenced by such factors knowing that their job is not at risk and therefore be tempted to gain favour from weighty applicants who know how to show their appreciation.

So is it advisable to rush into half-baked reforms which lead simply from one disaster to another? Given the oversupplied state of the property market it would be healthy to suspend Mepa operations and freeze the intake of new applications until the reform is discussed, decided upon and implemented.

The problem with Mepa is not so much who decides; it is more what are the rules upon which such decisions have to be based. Before government or Mepa develop strategic development plans which are immutable and would be revised only once every generation (so that interpretations and policies may be expected to stay firm for twenty five years) there will remain far too much room for discretion in decision making which lead to inconsistencies and claims of favouritism.

So the first task is to issue a revised structure plan with firm and immutable boundaries for development and with detailed policies for development, region by region, village by village and street by street. We have to know the rules to gain the conviction that they are being applied uniformly even if we may disagree with them. We have to gain confidence in the rules to believe that applications will be treated on their own merits and not on the merits of the applicant.

Once the rules are known their application and enforcement has to be widely disseminated. Most applications of a trivial nature should be delegated to the architect in charge of the development who would simply follow the DNO route. The architect has to be responsible for small development to ensure it is within the terms and conditions of the Structure Plan, subject to penalties in case of failure. If we cannot trust an architect to build a house or a block of flats within the well defined rules why on earth do we send these people for so many years to university?

This measure on its own would probably solve 90 per cent of the complaints and free up Mepa resources to focus on the real important development issues i.e. large projects and ODZ applications.

The principle here has to be that for these sort of complicated applications, Mepa must have a three layered approval system. The first layer is the case officer who deals directly with the applicant until the application reaches a form that he/she can recommend to higher authority. If the case officer refuses the application than the client may resubmit it for reconsideration by a different case officer but if the application is refused again that’s where it stops. The negative decision of two separate case officers cannot be over-ruled by higher authority.

If the project is recommended for approval it is submitted for ratification to an internal board, composed of multi-disciplinary senior executives who are not allowed to enter into any sort of discussion with the applicant or his architect. The board should assess simply on the basis of the application and the case officer recommendation.

If the board ratifies the case officer’s approval recommendations the application is sent for final approval to a third-level compliance internal board who vets the decision for equity and consistency.

If the second-level board does not approve the case officer recommendations the matter is sent to a further board which meets with the developer in public and gives a chance to the developer to argue his case against the negative decision of the second-level board. Once this is done, the board takes its decision in public and if it overrules the decision of the second level board and approves the development it will have to justify its decision in public and will have to send the application for final vetting by the Compliance Board. On the contrary if the negative recommendation of the second level board is confirmed the refusal is final without scope for reconsideration.

We may be politically over-charged, but we can respect the rules if we gain the perception that the process of their implementation is fair and consistent.

No comments:

Post a Comment