Environmental policy is about political decisions

The Nationalist Party has recently published its proposals for the environment in a document entitled A Better Quality of Life for You. This is a step forward, irrespective of the reasons motivating it.

In the foreword to the published document, the Leader of the Opposition makes a very important declaration. He states: “We built the necessary institutions, and generally put in the right policies – but all too often we did not ensure they were fully implemented, or we circumvented them, and made too many exceptions.”

This signifies a recognition of the fact that, at the end of the day, the real issue is not just the identification of the “right policies”,  but of ensuring that the institutions entrusted to implement them are in a position to carry out their responsibilities. How can these institutions function when key posts are filled with partisan cronies, or so-called “persons of trust” instead of competent technical people?

At the end of the day, the successful implementation of environmental policy is dependent upon a favourable climate of good governance which has been conspicuous by its absence for quite a long time.

What purpose does it serve to have the “right policies” on land use planning when, as a result of pressures from the land speculation lobby, the PN in Government adopted a rationalisation scheme extending the limits of development in a horizontal direction? To make matters worse, simultaneously the PN in government also extended the limits of development in a vertical direction. As a result it ignored both its own sanctimonious declarations as well as the clear indications from data collected and analysed by official bodies that the net result of its actions was a continuous increase in the number of vacant properties.

Environmental policy is intrinsically linked to various other policy areas. The haphazard extensions of the limits to development – the horizontal ones as well as the vertical ones – have, and still are, wreaking havoc on the capacity of Maltese households to generate alternative energy through the placing of photo-voltaic panels on the rooftops of their homes. While the Energy Minister advocates the need to generate alternative energy through the installation of photo-voltaic panels, the Minister responsible for land-use planning has been playing around with flexible permissible building heights in various localities. How can we adequately plan the generation of alternative energy if solar rights are not guaranteed through rigid height limitation regulations?

Similarly, we speak of the need to ensure an improvement in air quality but simultaneously there is a reluctance to address the spiralling number of cars on our roads – the major contributor to poor air quality in a number of areas. Instead of addressing the matter head-on, successive governments have sought to make it easier for car owners to dominate our roads by sprinkling millions of euros on the unnecessary development of the road infrastructure. In my view, such developments are unnecessary, as the end result will be a further increase in the number of cars when the real and only solution is an immediate reduction.

Linked to all this is the lack of importance given to public transport. While acknowledging that there has been an improvement in the use of public transport during the past 36 months, this is still considerably way off what it should be in a small country where distances between localities are minimal. This, too, is a failure to implement the “right policies”.

Environment policy is about making choices and taking decisions – some of which may be difficult and contentious. Over the years, it has been the objective of Alternattiva Demokratika, the Green Party in Malta, to place these choices on the national agenda so that our citizens are in a position to consider them and decide.

After many years, the Nationalist Party has woken up to the environmental realities around us. While this is positive, I await the revision of the PN’s other policies, which are inconsistent with their environmental proposals. When that happens, we may be able to form a definite opinion as to whether the publication by the Nationalist Party of its environment proposals is for real, or else another green-washing exercise in which matter the Nationalist Party has accumulated considerable experience.

published in the Malta Independent on Sunday : 5 February 2017

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