Dr. Petra Bianchi
Environment Protection Director within MEPA
The Malta Environment and Planning Authority is constantly in the news. Whether it is buildings, waste collection, quarries, air, canopies, basements, protected areas and species, beached whales or dolphins, the restoration of old buildings, noise or odour nuisances, parking, dumping, diving, excavating, demolishing, filming, landscaping, camping or rambling – many people immediately first turn their gaze towards MEPA.
While the duties of the Authority are indeed wide-ranging, it is frequently assumed to be responsible when it is not - however this is not the moment to explore that particular concern.
The Environment Protection Directorate (EPD) is one of the Authority’s four directorates, and tends to feature prominently in media reports and articles. However its role and main functions within the organisation are perhaps not sufficiently known to the public.
The EPD performs a multitude of duties. We regulate waste collection in line with EU legislation, issue environmental permits to industry, monitor air quality, regulate activities taking place in protected areas, collect and report environmental data to the EU, evaluate Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) linked to proposals for development, and designate protected species and habitats in terrestrial and marine areas, amongst a myriad of other tasks.
The reform of the Authority is ongoing, and the EPD is part of this process. Among many other initiatives, industrial permitting is being strengthened and a new set of regulations will be open for public consultation shortly. A draft Plan for the collection of electronic and electrical equipment waste will also be made available for consultation in September.
The EIA regulations are being reviewed. Various measures put forward in the Air Quality Plan last year are being implemented. A national strategy to protect and conserve biodiversity will be published for consultation later this year. Funds have been obtained from the EU to draw up management plans for all the Natura 2000 sites in Malta and Gozo.
The Authority is also striving to make the environmental aspect of the planning process ever more central and transparent. For example, we have recently begun uploading the EPD reports on EIAs onto the website, to allow applicants, environmental NGOs and the general public to view these documents. The EPD reports were previously only summarised in the reports prepared by planning case officers towards the end of the application process.
This is a significant step towards making environmental assessment more central to the planning process, as can be clearly seen in the reactions to the EPD report on the Hondoq ir-Rummien application, with various statements being published about it in the press since its publication.
The EPD is intent on doing a good job in protecting the environment. There is a colossal amount of work to be done. However a reform of the magnitude that is being targeted needs a period of time to take shape.
The Authority also operates within a legal framework and is at times constrained to follow certain legally binding decisions taken in previous years, whether it likes them or not. This should not detract from all the good work that is being achieved for the benefit of environment.
One of the steps of the ongoing reform is that outline permits were removed from the planning process earlier this year. Consequently, it will soon no longer be possible for a set of board members to constrain any subsequent board members, together with the environment and planning directorates, into reviewing a proposal within the restricting framework of an outline permit.
However until all existing outline permits and applications have been concluded one way or another, both the directorates and the board members of the Authority may continue to be challenged by difficult and at times controversial decisions related to outline permits. Yet this should not be allowed to overshadow or discourage the positive steps that are now being taken to move ahead.
In many ways, some of them obvious and others perhaps less visible but equally significant, the Authority has embarked on a new direction. I have no doubt that this will become increasingly clear as we move ahead over the coming year.
The reform will undoubtedly continue to call out for improvements, together with fine-tuning as new measures are introduced, but overall the direction has been firmly set to raise the protection of the environment high on the Authority’s agenda.