What’s happening with our environmental laws?
I’ll admit from the start that my knowledge of environmental legislation does not go very far. However, I can read English, I can compare two documents, and I can draw my own conclusions regarding the changes made, conclusions I will outline here. This is an invitation for everyone else to do the same, and make their voices heard on environmental and planning legislation.
Let me explain this as clearly as I can. The new Developing and Planning Act (DPA 2015) together with the Environmental Protection Act 2015 will replace the Environment, Development and Planning Act of 2010 (which I shall call MEPA 2010). Now a cursory look at the contents page of DPA 2015 and MEPA 2010 will reveal that, in general, much of the new law is the same as the old. The first difference that caught my eye is that the section dealing with SPED, the Strategic Plan for Environment and Planning, is replaced with one that talks about a “Spatial Strategy for Environment and Planning” (which I shall call SSED). All links are provided below; I encourage readers to see this for themselves.
Nobody I have asked so far, not even the speakers at the official MEPA public information session last Wednesday, was able to answer whether this means that SPED (which parliament approved only weeks ago) is going to be replaced by another document SSED, or whether the DPA 2015 means to refer to SPED but got the name wrong every time. I am looking forward to a reply one of MEPA’s consultants on the matter.
The paragraphs in question, articles 44-46 in DPA 2015 are pretty much a cut-and-paste job from the corresponding articles 51-53 in MEPA 2010. In fact, sub-article 1 is almost identical to the old one; except, first of all, the DPA 2015 explicitly refers to the “Spatial Strategy” rather than SPED. In fact, throughout the document, wherever MEPA 2010 had SPED, DPA 2015 has SSED. So the change in name is certainly not a mistake.
Secondly, in part iii or c of sub-article 1, where MEPA 2010 said that SPED “must set out policies in relation to the development and use of land and sea…” we read that SSED need only set out “objectives”.
Now, NGOs like Din L-Art Helwa have already criticized the SPED document for being too general and not containing any specific policies. It seems like the change in wording proposed in the new laws will enable our authorities to get out of the bother of having to actually come up with a detailed plan of how they intend to bring about sustainable development on these islands. They no longer have to commit to setting up specific policies and implementation plans; all the new law will require is a general wishy-washy list of desirable outcomes for Malta’s environment and development – such as SPED is already criticized for being. At least, that is the only reason I can think of, for why they might have changed this particular word – from “policies” to “objectives” – in article 44 (1c).
44 (1c) is, in fact, a little shorter than 51 (1c) in 2010’s law, and this is because they removed the last part of the sentence which said that SPED must be “accompanied by an explanatory memorandum giving a reasoned justification for all of the policies and proposals contained in the plan.” One wonders why, out of a chunk of text, one would specifically decide to remove these words. Perhaps because there will be no specific policies or proposals to explain anymore, and no need for the explanatory memorandum. In any case, the removal of a clause which calls for reasoned justification does not bode well for transparency or public consultation procedures.
Those are all the differences that there are between the two corresponding sub-articles. They changed SPED to SSED, they changed “policies” to “objectives” and they scrapped the part which said they had to explain their policies. Everything else – around 150 words, and three quarters of a page – stays the same.
Moving on to sub- article (2) (and you’ll be glad to know I’ll be stopping soon) the differences become greater. I won’t go into them too much; suffice to say that they removed a clause which said that SPED could not be reviewed before five years had elapsed. This would perhaps have made our environmental laws a little binding and not open to revision whenever there is a change in government, or whenever government gets a business deal too good to turn down. Now it seems that reviews to our environmental strategy can happen “as often as is necessary”.
In fact, they removed two entire sub-articles (MEPA 2010 51 (2,3,4); DPA 2015 44(2,3)) which specified how such a review of SPED could occur. There was once a procedure for it; there would need to be a resolution passed in parliament first of all, and then cabinet would draw up a list of objectives for MEPA to implement. If MEPA disagreed with these, there was a way it could propose changes. All that is gone now. The Spatial Strategy may be reviewed in part or in full as often as necessary, and such a review will happen in accordance with the goals as set out by Cabinet. That’s it; there is no more to be said, and no further discussion will be allowed, it seems.
From then on, from article 44(5) onwards, that is, it’s back to cut-and-paste, except for some more bad news for transparency and consultation in 44(6), but I’ll let you read this for yourselves.
Once again, I must admit that I am no expert, and I find it difficult to read legalese on a hot summer’s day. I was hoping to meet someone who could explain these things to me at the Public Meeting, but was sorely disappointed.
In any case, we needn’t be experts to understand that when a few particular words are changed in legal documents, there’s probably a very important reason. Something is definitely going on if they decided to change those few words, and nothing else.
We needn’t be experts to participate in the consultation processes of our country either; the opportunity is there, and it is open to all. The documents are all available online and submissions from the public are being received by email until August 7th.
We certainly don’t need to be experts to know what we want – in this case, I would like a binding Strategic Spatial Plan or whatever, one which contains detailed plans and policies, which are explained and justified to the public, and which cannot be changed on the Minister’s whim. And that is exactly what I am going to say in my submission.
If, like me, you refuse to see Malta’s environment further degraded, and want to take a stand on this, can I invite you to read the paragraphs I mentioned – or read some other part, or the entire document – and have your say too. All it takes is an email, after all.
DPA 2015 (Bill 107) http://www.parlament.mt/billdetails?bid=531&l=1&legcat=13
MEPA 2010 (Act X of 2010) https://www.mepa.org.mt/LpDocumentDetails?syskey=%201260
DLH and Marlene Farrugia criticize SPED: http://www.maltatoday.com.mt/printversion/53117/#.Vbne4bOqqko
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