Last August, I wrote refusing Johann Buttigieg’s testimony that equated developers lobbying for their projects with eNGOs acting against inappropriate project proposals.
The revelation that messages allegedly exist between Buttigieg and Yorgen Fenech, which propose joint business projects between them, projects which were still to be approved by the Planning Authority that Buttigieg led, proposes a completely different meaning to the term ‘lobbying’.
These alleged conversations, if they prove to be what they seem to be prima facie, would confirm what Din l-Art Ħelwa and other eNGOs have been saying for some time, namely that the Planning Authority, its policies and its decision-taking processes are, at best, biased in favour of the developer.
What the alleged conversations demonstrate is not bias but something that is much more sinister.
It must be acknowledged that the current minister of sustainable development, the environment and climate change must have sensed that something was rotten in the PA republic when he changed the executive director and commission chairpersons at the beginning of his tenure. However, playing musical chairs is not going to solve the endemic problem of poor planning and worse development control. The rot requires a more drastic intervention.
Planning is one of the more powerful agents of patronage. Planning decisions can make some people very, very rich; consequently, persons in charge of planning and politicians who can influence planning decisions are obvious targets of courtship by the richer and stronger lobbies.
Way back in the 1990s, the first development planning legislation in Malta tentatively proposed a system which sought to purge planning from the direct influence, and control, of politicians – the career of the minister who piloted this legislation in parliament ended at the following election!
Admittedly, the application of that law was not perfect but, in subsequent legislatures, political control of planning decisions gradually crept back in.
In the 2013 administration, the prime minister, through a parliamentary secretariat, kept the Malta Environment and Planning Authority firmly within his portfolio, and held weekly meetings with the executive chairman of the authority.
When, in 2020, the debate was raging on good governance in Malta, the focus was on diluting the prime minister’s role in the appointment of key positions, including the president of the republic, judges and the chief justice, the attorney general, the ombudsman, the chair of the permanent commission against corruption, permanent secretaries, the members of the employment commission and central bank directors. But the position of the executive chairman of the Planning Authority and of the majority of council members remained firmly in the prime minister’s hands.
Planning is one of the more powerful agents of patronage- Alex Torpiano
The model proposed by the Development Planning Act of 2016 is clearly wrong, not least because it has proven incapable of delivering high-quality urban development and proper protection of rural landscapes and heritage assets, to the detriment of the mental and physical well-being of the citizens of Malta, but also incapable of protecting the attractiveness of Malta and Gozo, key to the tourism industry.
The shock (but not completely out of the blue) of the additional dimension, of potential corruption in planning decisions and processes, needs some time to be digested. But the most important question is: how should we go forward from this nadir?
There is no doubt that, Mr Prime Minister, there should be a thorough inquiry into the alleged business conversations between the Planning Authority executive chairman and Fenech (and others?).
Secondly, the law must be amended to ensure that: (a) members appointed to key decision-taking positions make a declaration of assets and business interests at the moment of appointment and on an annual basis during their term; (b) an open register of meetings between lobbyists and Planning Authority chairpersons/directors/board members must be maintained; (c) a mechanism is introduced for independent oversight of the ethical behaviour of the key officers of the authority, on the lines of the commissioner for standards in public life; (d) a mechanism is introduced for internal audit of decisions made by the different commissions to identify, and possibly correct, anomalous interpretations of policy.
It is, additionally, of paramount importance that the position of chairperson of the ‘independent’ tribunal be occupied by persons who are truly independent of the authority – without the sophistry of ‘justifications’ based on the different source of the salary for persons, who are technically still within employment, temporarily suspended, with the Planning Authority.
These games by politicians should stop immediately. Planning decisions are intrinsically difficult and can be unpopular, like bitter medicine. Let us, at least, make them transparent; let us build in systems of checks and controls to reduce the impact of powerful and rich lobbies on policymaking and decision-taking.
This is all in the interest of our natural and built environment – all in the interest of sustainable development, a term glibly bandied about.
Alex Torpiano is executive president of Din l-Art Ħelwa.