Political calculation or environmental principle?

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Joseph Muscat’s declaration that the Freeport Terminal will not be permitted to expand in Birżebbuġa’s direction due to its impacts on the residential community will inevitably have an effect on the Planning Authority. Viewed in the context of the recent Planning Authority decision not to approve the proposed Ħondoq ir-Rummien development, a pattern seems to be developing.

Given the fact that these two decisions are closely associated with localities that politically support the Labour Party it is still not clear whether this newly discovered sensitivity to restrict development which negatively impacts residential communities is based on political calculation or on environmental principle. This consideration is inevitable, in particular due to the report in this newspaper on 22 June that the Prime Minister had stated, in a discussion with environmental NGO Flimkien għall-Ambjent Aħjar, that he does not care about impact assessments, as residents get used to everything. As far as I am aware, the Office of the Prime Minister never corrected this report.

The Freeport Terminal debate clearly indicates that Birżebbuġa residents are determined to deliver a different message: they have had enough. During the last seven years there has been an ongoing tug-of-war between Birżebbuġa Local Council, MEPA and the Freeport Terminal Management. This has led to a number of improvements, the most important of which was the setting up of a tripartite Environmental Monitoring Committee that has served to build some bridges and to explore solutions to existing problems caused by the operation of the Freeport Terminal.

There was a time, around two years ago, when pressure was put on Birżebbuġa Local Council to drop its objections to specific operations. I distinctly remember representatives from the oil-rig repair industry  trying to convince the Council of the “benefits” that an oil-rig industry based at the Freeport Terminal could generate.

When these representatives realised that no one was convinced, an amendment to the environmental permit was forced through the then MEPA Board. To their credit, only three of the then board members understood the real issues and voted against the proposal: the two MPs (Joe Sammut and Ryan Callus) and the environmental NGO representative Alex Vella of the Ramblers Association.

The amended environmental permit would have permitted minor repairs to ships and oil-rigs berthed at the Freeport Terminal. However, after the MEPA Board meeting all hell broke loose, leading Prime Minister Joseph Muscat to disassociate himself from its decision and publicly align himself with the minority on the board opposing the changes. He then stated that he was in agreement with “his representative”, Labour MP Joe Sammut.

While the Freeport Terminal, faced with the reaction of residents, eventually relinquished the newly-acquired permit, the internal debate within the Labour Party continued, leading to the recent statement by Joseph Muscat that he is not in agreement with an expansion of the Freeport Terminal operations that would have a negative impact on the Birżebbuġa community.

Irrespective of whether it is a matter of principle or a political calculation which has led the Prime Minister to make such a statement, I submit that this is still a significant turning point that has been achieved as a direct result of Birżebbuġa Local Council’s persistent lobbying. It contrasts with the position taken by the Leader of the Opposition, who looks forward to an increase in the operations of the Freeport Terminal, without batting an eyelid over the resulting, continuously increasing, impact on the residential community.

The Prime Minister’s statement, while being a positive first step, is certainly not enough. It needs to be translated into policy as an integral part of the revised Local Plans currently under consideration. It is also important that the Prime Minister’s newly identified sensitivities are exported to other areas in Malta and Gozo. It is essential that, in a small country such as ours, third party rights opposing “development” are reinforced.

The issue at stake is far larger than Birżebbbuġa or the Freeport Terminal. It is a tug-of-war between those supporting “development” at all costs and our residential communities. The government must, through planning policy, be supportive of all our residential communities without exception.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday – 31st July 2016

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