The environment landscaping problem
Tuesday, 10 September, 2019
Alfred E Baldacchino
According to the National Audit Office (NAO) report of September 2017, “landscaping maintenance through a Public-Private Partnership” was a matter for which an agreement was entered into on October 31, 2002 between the government (Ministry of Finance) and the Environment Landscaping Consortium (ELC) “for managing government resources, which were made at its disposal to deliver the landscaping projects in accordance with the terms and conditions stipulated in the agreement.”
This agreement “was not derived through competitive tendering procedures” but awarded “through direct negotiations with ELC following a call for an expression of interest.”
The government further opted to extend this contract twice, namely in 2007 and 2012 through two direct orders which “also deviate from the spirit of competition promoted by the Public Procurement Regulations where it is stipulated that material contacts are to be subject to a European Union wide call for tenders”.
According to the NAO, “the contractual rates negotiated are not favourable to the government” because of such procedures.
This contract expires at the end of 2019, having to date received from the government approximately €8 million per year (that is, €136 million in total).
The NAO report goes into detail about the contractual deficiencies of this agreement. Amongst these, the report outlined how the parties’ documents did not reconcile on various aspects of service delivery. It noted that the Project Management Committee was non-functioning and that there was non-receipt of a number of reports, particularly the quarterly management accounts, which “constitutes a contractual breach”.
The report noted the use of pesticides at Buskett Gardens’ orchards despite the restrictions within an EU Natura 2000 site, and also how documentation relating to a detailed survey of the sites could not be traced by the Planning Authority and the Environment and Resources Authority.
The NAO also outlined how work was carried out without any authorisation and that work on four projects, which had to be completed by 2017 and which were to be carried out by the contractor at no additional cost to the government, had not yet commenced.
There was mention of how the government had not kept abreast on the status of the contractual clause needing to be fulfilled whereby the government had agreed to finance an in-house training course for students following horticulture studies at MCAST. There was also mention of the government’s lack of knowledge of the contractor’s financial input, which was not conducive to a balanced partnership.
The report noted how the contract rates higher than other landscaping agreements signed by governmental entities and that the operational and financial information gaps were not appropriately safeguarding the government’s position as a partner within this agreement. It went on to note: “The contractor’s non-compliance remains evident on a number of issues.
In some cases, deviations from contractual clauses that date back to 2002 impact negatively on the government’s direct and broader interests.”
The NAO report refers only to the financial and commercial aspects of this PPP contract. The national and EU obligations with regards to biodiversity are not entered into.
A copy of this public agreement was requested on June 23, 2015. This request was vehemently refused by the Ministry for Transport and Infrastructure, as was the subsequent appeal dated August 13, 2015.A request was filed with the Information and Data Protection Commissioner on August 19, 2015. The Commissioner’s decision of January 19, 2016 considered “that the public interest is better served by providing the applicant with a copy of the requested document” and “that there are no impediments to release a copy of the agreement.”
I cannot help but wonder whether there is any hidden political hand in this environment landscaping conundrum
The Commissioner’s decision went on to say that, hence, “in the spirit of transparency and accountability as contemplated by the Act, the MTI [Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure] is instructed to accede to Mr Baldacchino’s request by not later than twenty-five (25) working days from the receipt of this decision”.
Following this ruling, an appeal was lodged by the said Ministry to the Information and Data Protection Appeals Tribunal.
The Information and Data Protection Appeals Tribunal (14.09.2107) waived the appeal made by the Ministry for Transport and Infrastructure, confirming the Commissioner of Information and Data Protection ruling (19.01.2016), and ordered that a copy of the agreement signed between the government and ELC on October 31, 2002 should be given to the applicant.
The Information and Data Protection Appeals Tribunal in its ruling (27/2016) concluded, amongst other things, that “in the said agreement, there is no information of a commercial nature that cannot be made public and that in terms of article 35(2) of the said Act, it is in the public interest that such an agreement be made public.”
The Ministry for Transport and Infrastructure was unhappy with this ruling. An email from the Ministry for Justice, Culture and Local Government in October 2017 subsequently explained: “The Ministry for Transport and Infrastructure had appealed the Tribunal’s decision and filed a court case (45/2017) against the Commissioner for Information and Data Protection, before the first hall of the Civil Court”, arguing that the decision of the Commissioner for the Protection of Data should be declared “null and void”.
Judgement had to be reached by December 2017, but the sitting has been postponed and postponed again. The decision is still pending.
Considering the Freedom of Information Act (Chap. 496 of the Laws of Malta) and considering that, as a member of the European Union and also a signatory to the Aarhus Convention (Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters), one would have thought that such a matter would have been solved within weeks. But after four years from the initial request for a copy of this agreement, such a contract is still not publicly available.
One would have thought that the ELC – the government’s private partner – would be proud to inform everyone how they utilised the €136 million from public funds in relation to their contractual obligations.
The NAO’s report (page 55) concludes: “Contractual non-compliance prevailed in the face of government’s limited enforcement action. In such circumstances, the government’s position shifted from one where action could be initiated to dissolve this PPP Agreement, to one where prolonged weak enforcement implied tacit consent”.
The Ministry for Finance has opted for the second position and continued to vote €8 million per annum. What will be the stand taken by the Ministry of Finance vis-à-vis the coming budget with regards to this ‘secret agreement’? Hopefully the Ministry for the Environment, who is now responsible for this ‘secret contract’, will put its foot down.
I cannot help but wonder whether there is any hidden political hand in this environment landscaping conundrum.