Green gaps in the Budget

The green gaps in the Budget speech cannot be patched up with the millions of euros spread in the pockets of both those in need as well as those who are well off.

Edward Scicluna’s Budget speech last Monday was far too long. Yet in its over 100 pages it missed addressing a number of environmental issues on which different government spokespersons pontificate throughout the rest of the year: confirming that they just pay lip-service to the issues.

The lack of good environmental governance has considerable economic and social impact as is evident to one and all.

While the Budget proposals strengthen the social safety net, it is to be underlined that quality of life is not measured solely in terms of financial metrics. Throwing euros at problems does not lead to any solutions.

The budget speech correctly emphasises the necessity of waste recycling. Unfortunately, the Minister for Finance did not explain how this effort should be integrated into a circular economy, even though the Environment Minister repeatedly boasts of how supposedly the move towards a circular economy is a priority for government. In the entire speech, the circular economy is not mentioned once. Nor does the Economic Survey dwell on the matter or even faintly refer to the matter.

This raises the suspicion that government has lost the plot and does not have any policy ideas on such an important aspect of the economy with its social, economic and environmental effects.

The Budget speech emphasises the energy generation potential from waste incineration which requires large volumes of waste in order to be viable. But the budget speech is silent on how this fits in with the stated commitment to actually reduce the volume of waste.

The government is trying to square the circle; on the one hand it wants to reduce waste but on the other hand it needs more and more waste to make its huge incinerator viable.
The Budget speech also gives the impression that it addresses important aspects which impact the quality of life when in fact offers only half-baked and token solutions.

Among them is the point on water policy. The speech mentions incentives to encourage repairs of existing wells but then it avoids altogether a real and focused effort to address the acute issue of dwellings built without water cisterns, with the consequence that water ends up in the public sewers or flooding our streets.

Developers are let of the hook even when roads are flooded and sewers are overflowing, not to mention the sheer waste of perfectly good water.

The same can be said of the supposed solutions to traffic congestion. The Budget speech refers to the financial incentives available to encourage the use of alternative modes of transport, but here again it ignores the roots of the problem. The government spending of millions of euros for the development of the road infrastructure will only increase traffic congestion, thereby squeezing users of alternative means of transport off the roads.

It is useless to incentivize the purchase of bicycles and pedelecs when there is no investment in adequate infrastructure to ensure that people can commute safely using these important alternative means of transport, which actually help to decrease congestion in our roads.

Over one year ago the Prime Minister had taken a leaf from Alternattiva Demokratika’s electoral manifesto and declared that the government will determine a cut-off date by which new cars will need to be electrically driven or possibly of a hybrid nature.

This declaration had heralded the issue of electrification of transport on our roads addressing two major issues: the quality of air and the contribution of transport emissions to climate change. This, once implemented, would be a substantial contribution to the decarbonisation of the Maltese economy. We are none the wiser on government plans after listening to or reading the budget speech.

Clearly financial parameters are not the only indicators of our quality of life. The green gaps in the budget speech need plugging at the soonest.

published in The Sunday Times of Malta : Sunday 28 October 2018

Sound governance protects the environment

 

green hands

Demerger will cause institutional fragmentation.

The state’s duties are not enforceable in a Court of Law.

 

 

Protection of the environment is not achieved in proportion to the number of authorities established to deal with the environment, resources and land use planning. In fact, subject to sound governance, the number of established authorities is irrelevant.

The government has, through its election manifesto, created a storm in a teacup, raising expectations that the demerger of MEPA would result in a government locked into a green commitment. The Opposition, on the other hand, has spoken of a doomsday scenario which will be triggered by the proposed demerger.

Both are wrong as the path to a green commitment requires a political will that is not easily detectable in the House of Representatives as presently composed. The Labour government and the Nationalist Opposition have entered into other commitments intended to bolster the building development industry. Labour is currently moving along that path, whilst the Nationalists did it throughout their 26 years in government.

As a nation, we are still reeling from the devastating actions of the PN-led government which caused considerable environmental damage. Former Environment Minister Mario de Marco has recently been on record as stating that maybe too much has been sacrificed in the pursuit of economic growth. This is not simply a revival of the past, it is an exercise in trying to understand past PN issues of environmental governance that contradict all the sweet green talk of Simon Busuttil.

When the 2005 census indicated the existence of over 53,000 vacant or under-utilised residential properties, the PN-led government increased the uptake of land for development through the rationalisation exercise. It addition, it simultaneously increased the permissible height in several areas. In a number of instances, this increased from 2 to five floors. It also facilitated the construction of penthouses. This has led to an increase (as of 2011) in the number of  vacant and under-utilised residential properties to 72,000 units.

The proposed demerger of MEPA will neither address nor reverse this mess which is the PN’s environmental legacy to the nation.

Alternattiva Demokratika – The Green Party – is not in agreement with the MEPA demerger proposed by government due to the resulting institutional fragmentation. As a result, human and financial resources will be spread thin over two authorities, thereby weakening effective environmental governance. As a small country, we actually require defragmentation, as this reinforces effective environmental stewardship.

Earlier this week, I and AD’s General Secretary Ralph Cassar had a meeting with Environment Minister Leo Brincat during which we discussed AD’s views in relation to the Environment Protection Act currently pending on Parliament’s agenda.

AD noted that whilst the proposed Environment Protection administrative structures do not contain any parliamentary representation, this has been retained in the land use planning structures. In fact, in paragraph 63(2)(d) of the Development Planning Act 2015, it is provided that two MPs will sit on the Planning Board.

AD does not consider it necessary for Parliament to be present in the planning decision-taking structures. It serves no purpose to have MPs involving themselves in decisions as to which individual development permit is approved or rejected. Alternattiva Demokratika suggested to Minister Brincat that MPs have no direct role to play in operational matters regarding land use planning. It would be more appropriate if Parliament’s Standing Committee on the Environment and Development Planning is given wider powers to monitor both the Planning Authority as well as the authority dealing with the environment and resources. This would entail the availability of financial and human resources so through its Standing Committee, Parliament would be in a better position to identify, and consequently nip in the bud any irregularities or inconsistencies.

Both the Development Planning Act as well as the Environment Protection Act list the duties and principles which the state should observe to ensure “a comprehensive sustainable land use planning system” and “to protect the environment”.   However, after going into detail to explain such duties, the legislation before Parliament then proceeds to state that these “are not enforceable in a Court of Law”. This is specified in Article 4 of the Development Planning Act and in Article 5 of the Environment Protection Act.

One should state that there are similar provisions in present legislation. It is, however, high time that such provisions are removed so that it will be possible for Maltese citizens to seek redress against the state if it attempts to circumvent its duties and abdicate its responsibilities.

Last April, following a legal challenge by the environmental NGO Client Earth, the United Kingdom’s Supreme Court  squashed Her Majesty’s government’s ineffective plans to reduce illegal levels of air pollution in Britain and ordered it to deliver new ones by the end of 2015.

Similarly,  last June Courts in Holland ordered the Dutch Government to reduce its carbon emissions by at least 25 per cent within 5 years in what is being termed as the world’s first climate liability suit.

Maltese citizens deserve no less. It would therefore be appropriate if the above mentioned provisions of the Development Planning Act and the Environment Protection Act are enforceable in a Court of Law.

Another proposal made by Alternattiva Demokratika in the meeting with Minister Brincat concerns the method of selection of the board members of the  two Authorities, as well as their senior executives (CEOs and Directors). AD believes that before government proceeds to appoint such members/executives, it should seek and subsequently follow the advice of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on the Environment and Development Planning . Such advice should be given by the Parliamentary Committee after the persons nominated are examined by the Committee during a sitting held in public. This change would increase the possibility of the appointment of a higher percentage of competent people as members of the board/senior executives. It would also reduce the possibility of appointing people whose only qualification is membership in the government party.

The proposed demerger is, in my view a non-issue. Legislating to facilitate the entrenching of good governance should be the real objective. After discussing the matter with Minister Leo Brincat I believe that, even at this late hour, this is still attainable.

Published in The Malta Independent on Sunday – 16 August 2015

Sustainable development goals : beyond rhetoric

SDGs

 

In the past few months, considerable work has been carried out by the United Nations to produce a document on sustainable development goals and earlier this week it was announced that a consensus has been achieved over this document that lists 17 goals and 169 specific targets.

The final document, which is now ready for adoption, is brief but wide-ranging. It is entitled Transforming our world: The 2030 agenda for sustainable development.

Taking into account the different national realities, the 17 identified goals cover  a wide range of issues (vide box) that form the global sustainable development agenda for the next 15 years. They aim to eradicate poverty, promote prosperity and increase environmental protection – constant objectives of the international community, that are continuously aimed for but so far not achieved.

The renewed commitment to achieve these goals is welcome. However, both the goals and the specific objectives will have to take account of different national realities and capacities, while respecting national policies and priorities.

Although the document has been described as a historic achievement, in practice it is nothing of the sort. We have been there before. For the past 40 years, commitments have been made at one global meeting after another, only for the world community to come back years later with a slightly different document.

In Malta, the politics of sustainable development is generally cosmetic in nature: full of rhetoric but relatively void when it comes to substance.

Sustainable development should be primarily concerned with having a long-term view which spans generations. It seeks an inter-generational commitment, with the present generation committing  itself to ensure that future generations have sufficient elbow room to take their own decisions. Even if we limit ourselves to this basic objective of sustainable development, it is clear that such a commitment is nowhere in sight in Maltese politics.

Sifting through the rhetoric, a clear gap is very visible. Rather than being developed over the years, the rudimentary sustainable development infrastructure has been dismantled. The National Commission for Sustainable Development, through which civil society actively participated in the formulation of a National Strategy for Sustainable Development, was dismantled by the previous administration.

If the politics of sustainable development is to be of any significance, it has to be evident at the roots of society and the sustainable development strategy itelf has to be owned by civil society. In Malta, a completely different path is followed. The sustainable development strategy is owned by the state and not by civil society. Hence it is largely irrelevant and practically insignificant.

The net result of the developments in recent years has transformed sustainable development politics in Malta into another bureaucratic process, with government appointees pushing pen against paper, producing reports and no visible improvement.

There is no political will to implement a sustainable development strategy, as this runs diametrically opposite to the political decisions of the current administration, which seeks to intensify the complete domination of Malta’s natural heritage by economic forces, plundered for short term gain.

The fragmentation of environmental governance is the latest building block of this strategy which is clearly evident behind the rhetorical facade.

This is not the future we want nor the future we deserve and it is not the transformation that Malta requires.

Next September, Malta will join the community of nations at New York in approving a document which it has no intention of implementing. Behind that rhetorical facade, the farce continues.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday – 9 August 2015

The elephant in the room

elephant-in-the-room

 

When Malta’s EU accession negotiations approached the final stages, a merger of the then Planning Authority and the Department for the Environment was announced.

While the merger was the right thing to do, it was done in a hurry and as a result, an organised Planning Directorate overshadowed an understaffed Environment Directorate.  A number of  civil servants employed in the former Environment Department had refused to go along to MEPA, thus further diluting the newly established Environment Directorate. This was further exacerbated by long spells during which the post of Environment Director was vacant. This did not involve weeks, but years. Currently, in fact, there is no Environment Director in place- the post having been vacated around two years ago.

The Environment Department was then one of the youngest departments in the civil service which, overnight, as a result of EU accession had to shoulder responsibility for a substantial portion of the EU acquis for which it was largely not equipped. The situation has slightly improved over the years. The previous administration declared many times that it would bridge the gap in human resources, but, unfortunately, it never lived up to its declarations. As a result, the Environment Directorate was, and still is, overshadowed. In addition, to make matters worse, the consolidated authority was (and still is) led by a Board in which environmental knowledge  was (very) scarce. This was the perfect recipe for a good initiative not to yield any results by design.

Malta requires more consolidation of environmental governance, not its fragmentation. Further consolidation will increase the chances of being more effective in coordinating related areas of policy: land-use planning and environment protection are two such areas. Fragmentation, on the other hand, increases ineffectiveness. However, mergers require commitment and resources – both of which have been manifestly lacking.

The potential fruits of the merger would only have been reaped if the consolidated MEPA had been led by an Environment Directorate. Unfortunately, it was designed differently: a combination of bad design and an absence of good faith.

The solution to this problem is not to reverse the merger but rather to reverse the roles of land-use planning and environment protection in a consolidated MEPA, meaning that land-use planning should be subjected to rigorous environmental control. Unfortunately, this was never on the cards, nor is it contemplated in the de-merger bills. The agenda of the parliamentary political parties has always been very clear: to ensure that land-use planning is subject to the least possible environmental controls in the interests of the development lobby.

This is the elephant in the room. The PN in government implemented this objective by a merger of a highly organised Planning Directorate with a weak but dedicated Environment Department. Labour has opted to achieve the same objective through fragmentation.

At the end of the day, the government’s misguided de-merger will not  cause additional damage: it will be more of the same, as we have been accustomed to throughout the years. The attainment of the full potential of the newly-created authorities will be postponed until such time as they are inevitably reunited under the leadership of a revamped Environment Directorate.

In the meantime, other important issues in the projected legislation can be focused upon. The manner of appointment of boards and top officers of the newly created authorities is one such issue.

Having the Minister’s trust is not a sufficient requirement justifying appointments to boards and authorities – and this not just with reference to appointments of an environmental nature. It would be appropriate if the competence of those selected for office is scrutinised in public. Other democracies, the United States of America for example, regularly use public hearings as an instrument for carrying out such  public scrutiny for a number of appointments of national importance.

In its 2013 election manifesto, Alternattiva Demokratika  specifically proposed the adoption of this method in order to examine the government’s nominees to public bodies. In particular, AD proposed  that government nominees to land-use planning, environment and resource-management boards (including directors and CEOs) should not take up their post until Parliament’s Environment and Land Use Planning Committee had examined such nominations in public and signified its consent thereto. Such a public hearing  should be carried out to establish whether the nominees are suitable for the posts to which they have been nominated.

Were nominees  required to subject themselves to such a public hearing, Malta would  definitely have a much better crop of administrators than that which it has been accustomed over the years. This would also reinforce the notion that administrators of public authorities are, at the end of the day, accountable to the whole country and not just to the government Minister who nominates them for the post.

The merger of land-use planning and environment protection at MEPA should be strengthened by ensuring that the Environment Directorate calls the shots. It is, however, equally important to ensure that those nominated to lead the authority (irrespective of whether we have one or more) are suitable for running the show.  Parliament should thus reclaim back its powers and vet the government’s nominees in public. When this has been done, we will be able to state that we have commenced down the path to improving environmental governance. Otherwise, it will be more of the same for many years to come.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday – 12 July 2015

Muscat’s priorities : the environment not included

Labour u l-Ambjent

 

The manner in which the government is handling the Żonqor University issue is a failure in environmental governance. It is a mishandling of Malta’s natural resources.

How can the government say that the feasibility of the Żonqor project depends on the low monetary value of the ODZ land and expect to be taken seriously? Is this not placing the profits of the Jordanian businessman above everything else, including Malta’s interests?

After the government signed a preliminary agreement with Jordanian businessman Hani Hasan N Salah on what has been labelled as the “American University of Malta” (at Żonqor Point) civil society erupted. The site site earmarked for development will gobble up thousands of square metres of agricultural land. Earlier this week, Joseph Muscat  tried to minimise the impact by stating that only one per cent of the agricultural land to be taken up for the project is used for growing crops. He was immediately rubbished by the farmers themselves who told the Independent on Friday that most of the agricultural land in question was, in fact, used to produce potatoes for the export market.

The term ODZ (Outside Development Zone) is associated with rural areas where development is limited to what is necessary in the interests of agriculture. There have been a number of exceptions, but, so far, such exceptions have been made where ODZ development was considered to be in the national interest. Such instances included the state hospital, the airport terminal, Malta’s only University, the Freeport, a number of both state and private schools, a home for the elderly, industrial estates, sewage purification plants and waste management facilities.

We have also had the case of Smart City. This replaced the former Ricasoli Industrial Estate but the site was extended into ODZ territory.

The general feeling is that ODZ land should only be developed in exceptional cases which have a social policy dimension or else are required in the national interest. The proposed American University is not such a case.

The government has not done its homework: in particular, it has not, to date, examined alternative sites for the proposed University. The ongoing debate has identified a myriad of such alternatives, most of which are located in Malta’s political south. In some instances, the alternatives sites that have been identified are competing with other uses proposed through “expressions of interests” currently being assessed. Whilst this might be understandable at this point, the government needs to explain why it has issued these “expressions of interests” when it knew quite some time ago that it had this competing demand for a substantial area.

Earlier this week, Prime Minister  Muscat embarked on a damage limitation exercise through which he seeks to collect from the public a list of possible alternative sites for his consideration.   This is a farce in the making, because suitable sites for this type of project are not selected in this manner.  The government  should have embarked on a meticulous search months ago, and should have entrusted a group of experts with the study of all possible options, analysing in detail the advantages and disadvantages of each site, including the relative opportunity costs.

The fact that it did not proceed in this manner is a testimony to the amateurishness of the Muscat administration, an administration which clearly imagines that it knows it all. It is bad governance at its worst.

Malta has a right to land use planning that is sensible and sensitive. Each one of us has the right to expect as much from Labour, which promised that the environment would be its priority.

By now it should  be pretty obvious to everyone that the Audrey Harrison billboard stating that, for Labour, the environment is a priority is just another gimmick. The environment never was a Labour priority, and it will never be.

Published in the Independent on Sunday, 24 May 2015

Malta’s EU story : the environment

JOINT SEMINAR BY THE OFFICE OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT IN MALTA AND THE TODAY PUBLIC POLICY INSTITUTE

Friday 3 October 2014

address by Carmel Cacopardo

eu-flag

 

Since Malta’s EU accession there has been a marked contrast of interest in issues related to environmental governance.

EU accession has generally had a positive influence on Maltese environmental governance.  A flow of EU funds has been applied to various areas which Maltese governments throughout the years did not consider worthy of investing in.  On the one hand we had governments “occasionally” applying the brakes, seeking loopholes, real or imaginary,  in order to ensure that lip service  is not accidentally translated into meaningful action. On the other hand civil society has, in contrast, and  as a result of EU accession identified a new source of empowerment, at times ready to listen, however slow to react and at times ineffective.

Land use planning and abusive hunting/trapping have for many years been the main items on the local environment agenda. Water, air quality, climate change, alternative energy, biodiversity, noise, light pollution, organic agriculture, waste management and sustainable development have rightfully claimed a place in the agenda during the past 10 years. Some more frequently, others occasionally.

Land use planning has been on the forefront of civil society’s environmental agenda for many years. Abusive land use planning in the 80s fuelled and was fuelled by corruption. It led to various public manifestations in favour of the environment then equated almost  exclusively with the impacts of land development. Many such manifestations ended up in violence. Whilst this may be correctly described as history, it is occasionally resurrected  as in the recent public manifestation of hunters protesting against the temporary closure of the autumn hunting season.

Whilst hunting and land use planning may still be the main items on Malta’ environmental agenda the ecological deficit which we face is substantially deeper and wider.  It is generally the result of myopic policies.

For example it is well known that public transport has been practically ignored for the past 50 years, including the half-baked reform of 2010. This is the real cause of Malta’s very high car ownership (around 750 vehicles per 1000 population). As the Minister of Finance rightly exclaimed during a pre-budget public consultation exercise earlier this week traffic congestion is a major issue of concern, not just environmental but also economic. Impacting air quality, requiring additional land uptake to construct new roads or substantial funds to improve existing junctions traffic congestion is a drain on our resources. May I suggest that using EU funds to improve our road network  will delay by several years the shifting of custom to public transport, when we will have one which is worthy of such a description.

The mismanagement of water resources over the years is another important issue. May I suggest that millions of euros in EU funds have been misused  to institutionalise the mismanagement of water resources. This has been done through the construction of a network of underground tunnels to channel stormwater to the sea.  The approval of such projects is only possible when one  has no inkling of what sustainable management of water resources entails. Our ancestors had very practical and sustainable solutions: they practised water harvesting through the construction of water cisterns beneath each and every residence, without exception. If we had followed in their footsteps the incidence of stormwater in our streets, sometimes having the smell of raw sewage due to an overflowing public sewer, would be substantially less. And in addition we would also avoid overloading our sewage purification plants.

Our mismanagement of water resources also includes the over-extraction of ground water and the failure to introduce an adequate system of controls throughout the years such that  most probably there will be no more useable water in our water table very shortly. In this respect the various deadlines established in the Water Framework Directive would be of little use.

Whilst our Cabinet politicians have developed a skill of trying to identify loopholes in the EU’s acquis (SEA and Birds Directive) they also follow bad practices in environmental governance.

It is known that fragmentation of environmental responsibilities enables politicians to pay lip service to environmental governance but then creating real and practical obstacles in practice.

Jean Claude Juncker, the President elect of the EU Commission has not only diluted environmental governance by assigning responsibility for the environment together with that for fisheries and maritime policy as well as assigning energy with climate change. He has moreover hived off a number of responsibilities from the DG Environment to other DGs namely Health and Enterprise.

In Malta our bright sparks have anticipated his actions. First on the eve of EU accession they linked land use planning with the Environment in an Authority called MEPA with the specific aim of suffocating the environment function in an authority dominated by development. Deprived of human resources including the non-appointment of a Director for the Environment for long stretches of time, adequate environmental governance could never really get off the ground.

Now we will shortly be presented with the next phase: another fragmentation by the demerger of the environment and planning authority.

In the short time available I have tried to fill in the gaps in the environment section of the document produced by The Today Public Policy Institute. The said document rightly emphasises various achievements. It does however state that prior to EU accession the environment was not given its due importance by local policy makers. Allow me to submit that much still needs to be done and that the progress made to date is insufficient.

Its BBQ time

Karmenu Vella + Dom Mintoff

On Monday 29 September at 2.30pm Karmenu Vella, Malta’s nominee to the Juncker led EU Commission will meet with Members of the European Parliament who sit on the Parliamentary Committees dealing with the Environment, Fisheries and Maritime Affairs. They will listen to his introductory views on the responsibilities which he has been assigned and subsequently they will ask questions.

For three hours they will listen to his answers after which they will decide whether in their opinion he is suitable for the post to which he has been nominated, that is as EU Commissioner for the Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries.

The MEPs will be interested to hear Karmenu Vella explain as to how he will go about with the proposed revision and possible consolidation of the Birds Directive and the Habitats Directives which matter he was specifically instructed by Commission President-elect Jean-Claude Juncker to take in hand. These views are especially significant in view of the quasi unconditional support which the Labour Party in Malta gives to hunters and trappers. The European Voice on Monday 22 September paraphrased it very accurately when it stated that: the matter “is particularly sensitive because Malta has been in repeated and continued violation of these laws because of bird hunting.” Will Karmenu Vella, for example, in view of the Labour’s experiences in Malta seek to sanction spring hunting within the rest of the EU? MEPs will undoubtedly be very eager to learn about what possiblies lies ahead if EU Environmental governance is dependent on Karmenu Vella!

In the letter of appointment Jean-Claude Juncker identified 5 clear targets which Karmenu Vella has to attain, namely:

  1. The overhaul of existing environmental legislative framework,
  2. The European Union strategy about the quality of air,
  3. The circular economy and the results achieved to date and in the light of the first reactions of the European Parliament and of the Council of Ministers,
  4. The implementation of the common fisheries policy,
  5. Active participation in international fora on the Oceans within the United Nations and other multilateral and bilateral fora.

MEPs would be very much interested as to what is in store as a result of environmental deregulation. Which legislative instruments will be targeted? How will Karmenu Vella in his role as Commissioner  seek to ensure that the protection which the EU has to date afforded to both man and the eco-system is not dismantled but rather reinforced?

The European Chemicals Agency which deals with the implementation of the REACH Directive has been removed from the Environment portfolio and transferred to the portfolio dealing with Enterprise. This is not a matter which Karmenu Vella has to answer for but it is indicative as to the forces at play on Juncker’s table. The REACH Directive is not considered as an environmental matter by Jean-Claude Juncker. In his opinion it has to be administered primarily in the interests of enterprise, that is of business and industry.

Committees of the European Parliament will by now have digested the experiences of former European Commissioner John Dalli. As a result they would be more than interested about Karmenu Vella’s contacts with the business world, about his thoughts on lobbying as well as what he think’s transparency is all about.

A report published by the Corporate Europe Observatory earlier this month is entitled: Do not bet on the commissioner: the case of Karmenu Vella of Malta.  Since this report emphasises that Karmenu Vella “is not suitable to be a commissioner” the members of the Committees of the European Parliament would undoubtedly wish to hear from Karmenu Vella as to why, in his opinion they should arrive at a different conclusion.

 

published in The Malta Independent : Wednesday 24th September 2014

Environmental Governance

construction_site_img_9716

Having over 70,000 vacant residential properties is a very serious matter which both the Nationalist and the Labour parties have ignored in their electoral manifestos. Rather than being ignored this fact ought to serve as the launching pad for a different way of looking at land use planning issues.

The Housing Authority in the past months has opted not to build new social housing units but instead decided to tap the stock of vacant dwellings held by the private sector. It was a very positive decision pushed forward by Minister Chris Said on taking up his Ministerial responsibilities early in 2012.

In its electoral manifesto Alternattiva Demokratika has listed a number of specific proposals which would go a long way to address the land use planning chaos which will be inherited by the government that takes office after the 9 March general elections.

As a first step Malta requires a moratorium on large scale residential development. The building industry cannot keep constructing flats and maisonettes in hundreds, adding to the stock of vacant dwellings. The number of vacant residential properties is equivalent to 9 times the size of the residential parts of B’Kara.

While the Malta Environment and Planning Authority has issued development permits, the State has, through our taxes, been paying up for the development of the infrastructure (roads, public sewer, water and electricity distribution networks………) which is underutilised. These funds could have been put to better use than to service vacant dwellings.

The boundaries of the development zone have to be rolled back. Those lands which, in August 2006, were included as land suitable for development as part of the so-called rationalisation exercise and have not yet been committed to development should return forthwith outside the development zone where they belong.

The construction industry, aided by a myopic MEPA, has made a havoc of our towns and villages through encouraging overdevelopment. In 2006, when the final decisions on most of the Local Plans were being considered,  the Government had access to the 2005 census results which determined the existence of 53,136 vacant dwellings. This was a substantial increase over the 17,413 vacant dwellings identified 10 years earlier as part of the 1995 census.

Publication of the 2011 census results on property is long overdue, but it is expected that the numbers this time will exceed the 70,000 mark substantially.

Faced with these numbers, a responsible government would never have proposed extending the development zones. The 2005 census result provided the evidence for their curtailment not for their extension. In addition to extending the development zones, the PN-led government increased the permissible building heights practically all over Malta, the end result being a further substantial increase in the number of vacant dwellings.

In addition, the height relaxation policy put in place in 2006 had another serious impact. It placed a number of dwellings in the shade of new buildings surrounding them, these being built in line with the new permissible heights. As a result, the residents in these dwellings cannot make use of solar energy. Not only the use of photovoltaic panels is out of the question but also their solar water heaters are in most cases no longer of any use!

Faced with this situation, it is political madness to propose considering the construction industry as an important and fundamental component of the economy, as the PL is proposing. The construction industry must shrink rather than expand. It must be assisted to manage its essential and unavoidable restructuring.

The construction industry can be directed towards three specific areas of activity: rehabilitation of old properties, road construction/maintenance and marine construction works. Each of these three areas of activity requires training in construction skills. Rehabilitation works require old building trades on the verge of disappearance. Roadworks, though improving in quality, still require a more skilled labourforce. We also need to take stock of our marine infrastructure which requires substantial improvement as well as regular maintenance.

The Government can assist the construction industry to change through providing training facilties for its labour force, thereby reducing the social impacts of change. Funds from the European Social Fund are available to assist in this exercise.

Land use planning should be subject to environmental governance rules. It is for this reason that AD considers it essential that rather then splitting up MEPA, the Government should go for a defragmentation, consolidating all environmental functions in one authority through the amalgamation of MEPA with the Resources Authority.

In such a consolidated authority, environmental considerations should be overriding and, in particular, land use planning should be put in its proper place: under the continuous supervision of a properly staffed Environment Directorate.

This is the basic change required in environmental governance. Placing the land use planning and the construction industry in their proper place and ensuring that environmental governance is defragmented.

published in The Times, Saturday 23rd February 2013

Snippets from AD’s electoral manifesto: (9) Against Fragmentation (of Environmental Governance)

mepa1

The following extract is taken verbatim from Chapter 14 of AD’s Electoral Manifesto

Against Fragmentation.

MEPA which was established in 2002 through the amalgamation of the Planning Authority and the Department for the Environment has been generally ineffective in carrying out its duty of protecting the environment. This has come about because as a result of the structures created, even after the so-called 2010 reforms, the environmental function of MEPA has been entrusted in the hands of those who consistently indicated that their interest was in encouraging unbridled development. The Directorate for the Protection of the Environment is suffocated and can hardly act except in some exceptional case where it would be to the political benefit of Government.

In addition to this there is a serious problem resulting from the spreading of various environmental responsibilities under different Ministries and Authorities. Fragmentation reduces the effectiveness of any action taken.

In the past AD focused on the need to separate the environmental function from the land use planning function. This emphasis was made as the basic problem then was that the environment protection function was continuously over-ruled by those bent on development at all costs.

AD is today proposing a different solution. This solution is intended to address environment protection and identify it as a central function whilst simultaneously addressing the existing fragmentation: this can be carried out by consolidating all the environmental functions in one authority. We thus propose that MEPA and the Malta Resources Authority (MRA) are brought together in one authority. In a consolidated authority the environmental function should be central and should lead the Planning Directorate to take a secondary role.

The consolidated authority will eliminate existing duplication and will thus lead to a better utilisation of resources as well as trained staff currently on the books at MEPA and MRA .

L-Estratt segwenti hu mehud kelma b’kelma mill-Kapitlu 14 tal-Manifest Elettorali ta’ Alternattiva Demokratika

Kontra l-Frammentazzjoni.

Il-MEPA li inħolqot fl-2002 bl-amalgamazzjoni tal-Awtorità tal-Ippjanar u d-Dipartiment tal-Ambjent kienet ħafna drabi ineffettiva fil-qadi ta’ dmirha li tħares l-ambjent. Dan minħabba li bl-istruttura li nħolqot, anke wara l-hekk imsejħa riforma tal-2010 il-ħidma ambjentali tal-MEPA hi fdata f’idejn min konsistentement wera li l-interess tiegħu hu li jinkoraġġixxi l-iżvilupp bla rażan. Id-Direttorat għall-Ħarsien tal-Ambjent fil-MEPA hu maħnuq u ftit li xejn jista’ jaġixxi għajr f’xi eċċezzjoni fejn ikun jaqbel politikament għall-Gvern.

B’żieda ma’ dan hemm problema kbira kkawżata minn responsabbiltajiet ambjentali mifruxa fuq diversi Ministeri u awtoritajiet. Il-frammentazzjoni tnaqqas l-effettività tal-ħidma li ssir.

Fil-passat Alternattiva Demokratika iffokat fuq il-ħtiega tas-separazzjoni tal-funzjoni ambjentali mill-funzjoni tal-ippjanar dwar l-użu tal-art. Din l-enfażi kienet saret minħabba li l-problema prinċipali dakinnhar kienet li l-ħarsien tal-ambjent kien maħnuq minn dawk li riedu jmexxu ’l quddiem l-iżvilupp bla rażan tal-art.

Alternattiva Demokratika illum qed tipproponi soluzzjoni differenti. Din is-soluzzjoni hi intiża biex tindirizza l-importanza li l-ħarsien tal-ambjent ikun il-mutur li jmexxi, iżda ukoll li tkun indirizzat l-frammentazzjoni u dan billi jkunu kkonsolidati l-funzjonijiet ambjentali f’awtorità waħda. Nipproponu għalhekk li jingħaqdu f’awtorità waħda l-MEPA u l-Awtorità dwar ir-Riżorsi (MRA). Fl-awtorità kkonsolidata, il-funzjoni ambjentali għandha tkun dik ċentrali u għandha sservi biex id-Direttorat tal-Ippjanar jieħu funzjoni sekondarja.

L-awtorità kkonsolidata telimina d-duplikazzjoni eżistenti u b’hekk isservi biex ikunu utilizzati aħjar il-faċilitajiet u l-istaff imħarreġ li hemm illum fil-MEPA u l-MRA.