Why the government or, in this case, one of its agencies, should have decided to keep secret its detailed plans for a major road project defies all logic, particularly since health and environmental issues are involved.
The Commissioner for Environment and Planning within the Office of the Ombudsman deemed as “unacceptable” a decision by Infrastructure Malta not to publish the plans of the Pembroke-St Julian’s Connections project.
That has now been rectified and the plans have been published on the Planning Authority website.
But the initial stand appeared even more irrational in light of indications that several finalised documents were already being used by the regulator to consult public entities. As if to highlight its own ridiculous decision, Infrastructure Malta let it be known that the plans in question had been submitted to the Planning Authority early in June, so the regulator was free to make them available to the public for its consultation process online.
Now, of course, the PA had made what seems to be a policy decision not to publish plans it brands as “incomplete”. This state of affairs – lack of transparency at its very best – forced a concerned citizen, an asthma sufferer, to seek the assistance of the Ombudsman to obtain a copy of the plans to see how the Pembroke-St Julian’s Connections could affect his lifestyle and, more importantly, his health.
The agency could easily have forwarded a copy to the worried citizen or, better still, invite him – and any other interested party – to their office to brief them on what is going on.
The Commissioner for Environment and Planning within the Office of the Ombudsman complained it was not fair that the public should only be given a few days to make representations when they could be kept continuously updated with regard to a project of such importance. He, therefore, recommended that the documents submitted to the planning watchdog, or updated ones, be published by Infrastructure Malta for the sake of transparency and the upholding of environmental rights. Commendably, that recommendation has been complied with.
Without a healthy environment we would be unable to fulfil our aspirations or live at a level commensurate with minimum standards of human dignity.
The European Human Rights Convention does not include an explicit right to a clean and quiet environment. However, where an individual is directly and seriously affected by an environmental hazard, an issue could arise under three of its articles: the right to life, prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment or the right to respect for private and family life.
In some cases, dealing with health and the environment, the European Court of Human Rights has raised the issue of the State’s positive obligation to take all appropriate steps to safeguard life. And when referring to preventive measures it laid stress on the public’s right to information.
It came, therefore, as a little breath of fresh air that the detailed plans were published, even if under coercion, in an implicit acknowledgement of the public’s right to know. That practice now needs to become the default position of government agencies when it comes to plans that impinge on any public interests, and certainly re-adopted by the PA with regard to ‘incomplete’ planning applications.
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