On June 15, I had the privilege of participating in a meeting of the Parliamentary Committee for the Environment, which was chaired by Labour MP Marlene Farrugia. The meeting concerned the preliminary site evaluation report of the ‘American’ University of Malta and consisted of a question-and-answer session with Mepa’s chief executive officer Johann Buttigieg.
Farrugia’s transparent and enabling style was very well suited to the transparent architecture of the new parliamentary building. However, the same cannot be said regarding the replies by Mepa’s representative when asked questions by representatives from Front Ħarsien ODZ, ENGOs, Alternattiva Demokratika and Nationalist MPs.
While I admired his calm and non-confrontational style and while I respect his role as a public officer, Buttigieg was trying to defend the indefensible during this grilling. No representative from the media-savvy Office of the Prime Minster was there to back up Buttigieg, who was tasked to assume responsibility for the Prime Minister’s brief for the ‘American’ University development. He was alone.
Some very interesting points transpired from this meeting. In my view, these render Mepa’s credibility close to zero because it is basically acting as the government’s poodle instead of behaving as environmental regulator.
The environment has become a commodity that is auctioned for the benefit of the few
We were informed that the government wanted a site specifically in the south-east and not the south of Malta. Given the size of Malta, it does not need much imagination to see what the government was pointing Mepa to given Żonqor’s geographical location.
Instead of refusing the Żonqor option, Buttigieg said Mepa accepted to consider this possibility. Mepa’s study actually recommended Żonqor as it clearly concludes that “Żonqor merits further consideration” in relation to the development of the ‘American’ University.
Mepa’s study did not adequately consider other possible sites, save for two non-starters. This is hardly surprising when it then transpired that Mepa’s own Environment Protection Directorate – which employs experts in the field – was excluded from the site selection process. What a waste of taxpayers’ money!
Buttigieg refused to inform those present who was conducting the studies on behalf of Mepa. He took full responsibility for the entire process. When pressed further, he replied that there were no sociologists, no economists, no hydrologists, no anthropologists, no transport and no agriculture experts involved. There were some unnamed planner/s and architect/s though.
This really took everyone by surprise. Anyone with basic academic knowledge knows that multidisciplinary studies are very important in policymaking processes to ensure that the subject under study is treated in a holistic way. When we are speaking about sustainable development – a term which Environment Minister Leo Brincat is so fond of – such multidisciplinarity becomes even more vital.
During the meeting it also transpired that the terms of reference for the site-selection study are not public. Hence, the main conclusion from the parliamentary committee meeting was that there were anonymous planners and architects involved in confirming a site preselected by the government. How’s this for transparency?
To date, the government has also refused to publish its agreement with Sadeen, the developers of the ‘American’ University. Does not the public have a right to know whether the government has any obligations with Sadeen and, if yes, what they are? Once again, transparency is experiencing a vanishing act.
Finally, those of us present were consoled by Buttigieg’s promise to declare which sites Mepa is now studying in its upcoming site-selection process. There are 100 of them, we were told. But let us not be too optimistic.
The Environment Planning Directorate, ecologists, sociologists, economists, hydrologists, anthropologists, transport and agriculture experts are not involved in this exercise. We are forced to have faith in the phantom architect/s and planner/s who are loyally following the government’s brief, which, apparently, is based on an agreement the government refuses to publish.
All in all, last Monday’s meeting confirmed what 21 NGOs stated earlier during the day: Malta’s environment is under institutional attack. The Mepa regulator has effectively metamorphosised into a handful of phantom planners reporting to the CEO who, in turn, reports to Prime Minister Joseph Muscat.
In the process, the environment, which is supposed to be a public good that belongs to us all, has become a commodity that is auctioned for the benefit of the few.
It will be unfortunate indeed if Muscat’s government will be remembered in the history books for lack of transparency and a frontal attack on the environment. But history can also be written by those who are active to defend the common good. And the voices of such persons and groups are growing louder.
Michael Briguglio is a sociologist.