Environmental groups remain sceptical about the long-awaited Mepa demerger, which came into effect yesterday, despite its assurances that the move will lead to less bureaucracy and greater environmental protection.

“Environmental protection will only increase with a commitment to environmental justice,” Flimkien Għall-Ambjent Aħjar coordinator Astrid Vella told the Times of Malta.

“At the moment, there is neither the spirit nor the implementation. Giving NGOs four days over the Easter weekend to appoint a board representative and having the new environment regulator as simply one of 13 consultees still leaves us at a stage of tokenism.”

Parliamentary Secretary Deborah Schembri officially launched the new Planning Authority (PA) yesterday, heralding a split which will see all environmental issues passed on to the Environment and Resources Authority (ERA), to be chaired by Victor Axiak.

This still leaves us at a stage of tokenism

Former Mepa chairman Vince Cassar, who will now chair the PA, said the autonomy and independence of the new authorities would give greater strength to their decisions and allow for greater environmental protection.

“My work will be geared towards ensuring that we can ach-ieve the necessary compromises between developers and environmentalists to protect our common heritage and truly prioritise sustainable development,” he said.

He also called on journalists to exercise more responsibility in their coverage of PA procedures, stating that while the media’s scrutiny was important, it also had the power to influence public perceptions of the authority’s work.

The demerger has come under consistent fire from environmental groups, who warn that it will weaken governance and allow political interference with decision making, as well as from the office of the Ombudsman, which said the proposals undermined transparency, accountability and access to public scrutiny.

Chief executive Johann Buttigieg yesterday announced a new expedited procedure for permits within development zones which were deemed to conform with the authority’s policies, and which would no longer need to be decided in a public meeting.

Consultees would be given stricter time frames to pass on their recommendations, and conditions, on permit applications, with the authority itself subject to fines if permits were not issued within the designated time frames.

Mr Buttigieg also announced the establishment of a new Design Advisory Committee under the leadership of David Mallia. “It is important that new buildings do not become eyesores but represent high-quality design with respect for their surroundings,” he said.

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