Public Land: private profits

The taking up of public land by catering establishments to extend their commercial activity beyond the limits of their property has been creating problems for residential communities all over the island.

The latest case, in Main Street St Julian’s, has developed after the Planning Authority issued a planning permit for the placing of chairs and tables in an area so far reserved for parking. The owner of the catering outlet acted on the approved planning permit without waiting for a decision from the Lands Authority as to whether it is permissible to use public land in the manner proposed.

Readers may remember that, some time back, the Lands Authority refused a similar application on The Strand in Gzira. In that specific case, a hotel had – on appeal from a Lands Authority decision – been refused permission to place chairs and tables on a platform to be constructed in lieu of parking spaces along a main road. The request for placing tables and chairs had been rejected as it was then proposed to take up two parking spaces and, in addition, due to safety concerns.

Notwithstanding this decision, taken more than 12 months ago by the Administrative Tribunal, it seems that the Planning Authority is still chained to business interests.

It is pertinent to point out that the planning policy document on outside catering areas in public spaces was drafted by an inter-Ministerial committee which specifically excluded representatives from out local communities. The interests of our local communities – residents as well as local councils – were completely ignored. Moreover, it is most probable that, when the matter was being considered by Cabinet, the Minister for Local Councils, Owen Bonnici, was fast asleep as otherwise he would undoubtedly have drawn to the attention of his colleagues that article 33 of the Local Councils Act deems it a function of local councils “to advise and, where applicable, be consulted by, any authority empowered to take any decisions directly or indirectly affecting the Council and the residents it is responsible for”.

All over the country, Local Councils are up in arms against the manner in which this specific planning policy was drafted, approved and is being implemented because instead of being people-friendly it is simply business-friendly.

It this specific case at St Julian’s the issue is with parking spaces. Try walking along the pavement in The Strand from Gżira to Sliema and then onto Tignè seafront. It would be a very difficult walk because business has taken over and transformed a public asset into a private asset. Navigating through the small amount of unoccupied space left available is a nightmare for pedestrians and it is even worse for residents living in residential units above ground floors that are occupied by catering establishments.

This is the result of a policy that puts business interests before the interests of residents: accessible and safe infrastructure for people do not feature in the policies of either the Government or the public authorities.

I have always been of the opinion that Planning is for People. Unfortunately it has been transformed into an easy money-making machine.

Albert Buttigieg, the Mayor of St Julian’s, was quite right in putting his foot down. It was likewise appropriate for Mario Fava, the President of the Local Councils Association, to participate in the press conference which drew attention of the press to this abusive action and to the need to scrap the offending policy forthwith.

It is about time that the Planning Authority is brought to its senses. Public open spaces in our localities should not be touched without the consent of local authorities: public land is for public use not for private profits.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 22 December 2019