The Lands Authority must become more efficient and clients must be served in a timely and efficient manner. Some people have had to wait for a decision for years and, in some instances, decades.
I feel it is important to address criticism and set the record straight. There have been no power shifts at the Lands Authority. In fact, Chapter 563 of the Laws of Malta, which governs the authority, states that the CEO is “directly answerable for his decisions or recommendations only to the board”.
The Board of Governors sets the rules through enactment of policies. Opposition spokesperson Ryan Callus sits on this board and takes part in shaping policies.
The law has robust checks and balances, including by means of strong powers vested in the Chief Audit Officer, who can investigate independently. There is no room for an autocrat who decides on his own.
But ultimately, what is the main issue at stake?
The Lands Authority reform of 2017 is a solid piece of legislation. However, it is perceived as lacking the mechanisms for quick and efficient decision making. During the past year, we have received justified criticism about the system, including from Opposition members.
In short, every file and almost every transaction had to be approved by the CEO and the board simultaneously.
This does not make sense. There was no distinction between the ordinary course of business and that which requires deeper attention and scrutiny. The issuing of a tender for a small garage necessitated the same approval procedure as tendering a large parcel of prime land or a delicate request for land expropriation.
The government’s direction addressed this specifically. It is asking the board to adopt a different approach, similar to any other authority that practices the separation of powers.
Boards should focus their valuable time and energy on matters and transactions of material importance and those considered of higher risk. It is a way of balancing risk, allowing the board to concentrate on issues that demand wider discussion, deeper analysis and collectivity in decision making.
It cleared the way for operational efficiency at a day-to-day level, while keeping checks and balances untouched. The board can still call in the chief executive and scrutinise every transaction. It is mandatory for the Chief Audit Officer to look at every transaction above €100,000.
The assertion that public land can be disposed of by the CEO, as if it was a personal fiefdom, is simply untrue
The assertion that public land can be disposed of by the CEO, as if it was a personal fiefdom, is simply untrue. Today, public land is disposed by public tender or parliamentary resolution. The law is very restrictive and closes loopholes.
More importantly, transfers involving transactions of over €500,000 need to be sanctioned by the board. Valuations, a highly debated topic in the past, remain as per current procedure and provisions of the law. Checks and balances are not being weakened.
The new direction also came at a time when important achievements were being registered. Revenues generated by the authority improved by 40 per cent this year over last year. Application processing has doubled, contracts signed tripled and public tenders increased sevenfold, while enforcement activity improved by eight per cent.
We have focused on tackling the backlog in estate management, looking at commercial potential. We can do much more here and can now take a proactive approach, where dilapidated properties with commercial opportunity are issued by public tender.
This will allow the authority to maximise government income and ensure the best use of the public property portfolio. Only recently the authority, in conjunction with the Joint Office, launched a very positive scheme allowing for the redemption of temporary ground rent, helping families eliminate uncertainty and offering them the chance to finally become home-owners.
More reforms are needed. We are focused on the future and how best to anticipate people’s needs. By the end of this year, we will introduce new, robust, online application systems with an improved interface. Applicants will have their request sorted within a pre-determined timeframe. This is a radical shift requiring a cultural change within the authority.
We also need to tackle the elephant in the room, which is speeding up the processing of the amassed backlog of ‘recognitions’. These primarily originate from the pending Church property registrations, notwithstanding that 27 years have passed since the Church-State agreement.
Most critical of all is to keep inspiring confidence and to maintain an innovation-based approach in our own people. We are a good team. Many members are brilliant on the technical aspect and boast of years of experience. They are, however, still hesitant and cautious due to ghosts of the past. People will not perform well unless they feel safe and trusted. My job is to believe in them and trust them.
This is also why the government’s direction was welcomed overwhelmingly by the team. Beyond the mud-slinging and untruths, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Time will tell. We will deliver.
James Piscopo is CEO Lands Authority.