L-ilma tax-xita: l-inkompetenza tal-awtoritajiet

Il-Ministru tal-Finanzi Edward Scicluna, fl-aħħar diskors tal-Baġit qalilna : “Il-Gvern huwa wkoll kommess li jkompli jaħdem biex jitnaqqas ir-riskju tal-għargħar f’pajjiżna. Għaldaqstant, se jsiru studji dettaljati sabiex jiġu żviluppati aktar miżuri li jistgħu jnaqqsu dan ir-riskju filwaqt li jimmassimizzaw l-użu tal-ilma tax-xita.”

Edward Scicluna bla dubju jaf li bħala riżultat tat-tibdil fil-klima l-maltempati kif ukoll ix-xita qed ikunu ta’ natura iktar intensivi. Meta tinżel ix-xita, b’mod partikolari meta tkun qawwija, l-infrastruttura tagħna ma tistax tlaħħaq. Imma minbarra l-impatti kkawżati mill-klima għandna fuqna ukoll il-piz u r-riskji kkawżati minn regolaturi nkompetenti.

F’Malta għal dawn l-aħħar 138 sena, il-liġi pprovdiet biex ikun hemm l-obbligu li jkollna l-bjar għall-ilma tax-xita fid-djar. Il-qisien tal-bjar varja tul is-snin. Originalment il-qies kien dipendenti fuq il-qies total tas-sulari kollha mibnija. Illum il-ġurnata dan tnaqqas biex ikun relatat mal-qies tal-art mibnija.

Sfortunatament dawn ir-regoli ftit huma osservati. Din mhiex storja li bdiet illum, ilha għaddejja snin twal possibilment sa mis-snin 60, żmien meta l-industrija tal-bini kienet għaddejja b’rankatura kbira. Jiena niftakar, meta kont għadni student, ftit snin ilu mhux ħażin, kont rajt rapport li kien tħejja għall-Gvern Malti minn esperti mibgħuta mill-Ġnus Magħquda. Dakinnhar diġa kien ċar li waqt u wara maltempati qawwija l-ilma għaddej mis-sistema tad-drenaġġ kien jiżdied b’mod astronomiku u dan billi ħafna ilma tax-xita flok ma jinġabar fil-bjar kien qed jintrema fid-drenaġġ. Is-sitwazzjoni, minn dakinnhar, marret ħafna għall-agħar!

Flok mal-ilma tax-xita jinġabar fil-bjar, f’ħafna każi qed jintrema fit-toroq, inkella direttament fis-sistema tad-drenaġġ pubbliku. Ammont enormi ta’ ilma tax-xita li nistgħu nutilizzaw qed jintrema. Ħafna, jekk jużaw l-ilma tax-xita jistgħu jnaqqsu b’mod drastiku l-kontijiet tal-ilma!

Meta l-ilma tax-xita jintrema fid-drenaġġ, dan mhux biss ifur fit-toroq tagħna imma minħabba li jgħabbi l-impjant tal-purifikazzjoni tad-drenaġġ b’ammont zejjed ta’ ilma iżid b’mod konsiderevoli l-ispejjes għat tmexxija tal-impjant.

Il-parti l-kbira tal-ħtija għal dan trid tinġarr minn dawk li jiżviluppaw il-propjetá. Anke l-Gvern, direttament, kif ukoll permezz tal-aġenziji tiegħu, fil-passat riċenti kien responsabbli għall-iżvilupp ta’ housing estates li fihom ma tinġabarx qatra ilma tax-xita!
Hu fatt magħruf li fejn żvilupp residenzjali jkun fih garaxxijiet parzjalment jew kompletament taħt il-livell tat-triq ftit għandna bjar għall-ilma tax-xita. L-Awtoritá tal-Ippjanar hi responsabbli biex tassigura li l-kundizzjonijiet tal-permessi tal-iżvilupp ikunu osservati: dawn kważi dejjem jinkludu l-obbligu li jinbena bir biex fih jinġabar l-ilma tax-xita. Imma ħafna drabi, għall-Awtoritá tal-Ippjanar, qiesu ma ġara xejn jekk il-bir ippjanat jibqa’ fuq il-karta.

Min-naħa l-oħra, l-Korporazzjoni għas-Servizzi tal-Ilma (WSC) matul dawn l-aħħar snin assumiet ir-responsabbiltá għas-sistema kollha tad-drenaġġ, liema responsabbiltá qabel kienet f’idejn id-Dipartiment tad-Drenaġġ. Din ir-responsabbiltá tinkludi l-għoti tal-permess biex bini ġdid jiġi imqabbad mas-sistema tad-drenaġġ.

Il-Korporazzjoni għas-Servizzi tal-Ilma x’verifiki qed tagħmel li l-katusi tad-drenaġġ biss qed jitqabbdu mas-sistema pubblika tad-drenaġġ? Qed isiru verifiki li m’hemmx katusi tal-ilma tax-xita ukoll? It-tweġiba teħduha waħedkom fit-toroq tagħna f’ġurnata ta’ xita qliel. Ħadd mhu jagħmel verifika dwar dak li qed jiġri.

Dan kollu jwassal għall-konklużjoni li waqt li l-ħtija ewlenija għall-qagħda preżenti hi tal-industrija tal-bini, għax, iktar le milli iva ma tipprovdix bjar għall-ilma tax-xita fi żvilupp ġdid, il-ħtija mhiex tagħha biss. L-awtoritajiet u d-dipartimenti tal-Gvern għandhom ukoll iġorru s-sehem tagħhom tar-responsabbiltá minħabba li ma onorawx l-obbligi regolatorji tagħhom. L-Awtoritá tal-Ippjanar u l-Korporazzjoni għas-Servizzi tal-Ilma (u dawk li ġew qabilhom) setgħu waqqfu dan l-abbuz, imma ma għamlu xejn.

Meta jkollna xita qliel, jew xita għal ħin twil, diffiċli tgħaddi minn ċertu toroq f’Malta u Għawdex. Dan hu sors ta’ periklu u fil-fatt id-Dipartiment tal-Protezzjoni Ċivili ikun okkupat ħafna f’dawn iż-żminijiet jgħin lil min ikun f’diffikulta minħabba l-għargħar.
Fondi tal-Unjoni Ewropea ntużaw biex jiġu ffinanzjati mini taħt l-art biex l-ilma tax-xita fit-toroq jinġabar u jintrema l-baħar. Fondi pubbliċi intużaw biex jinħbew irregolaritajiet li sar mis-settur privat. Mhux biss, imma ntużaw ukoll biex riżors prezzjuż jintrema. Dawn il-fondi setgħu intużaw ferm aħjar kieku intużaw biex l-ilma inġabar u nħażen fl-ibliet u l-irħula tagħna, flok ma ntrema.

Il-parir tiegħi lil Edward Scicluna hu li, flok ma jinħlew iktar fondi pubbliċi, għandu jassigura ruħu li l-Awtoritá tal-Ippjanar u l-Korporazzjoni għas-Servizzi tal-Ilma jwettqu l-obbligi regolatorji tagħhom. Meta jagħmlu dan, parti mdaqqsa mill-problema tal-ilmijiet fit-toroq tagħna tisparixxi.

 

Ippubblikat fuq Illum: 4 ta’ Novembru 2018

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Rainwater: the cost of incompetence

In his latest Budget speech, Finance Minister Edward Scicluna informed us that more studies will be carried out to identify flooding risks, simultaneously seeking to maximise the use of rainwater.

Edward Scicluna is aware that, as a result of climate change, storms are more intense than ever. When it rains, it pours, and our infrastructure is not capable of handling the resulting rainwater. To add to the impact of climate change, we also have to deal with the risks created as a direct result of incompetent regulators.

For the past 138 years,legislation in Malta has specifically provided for the construction of water cisterns in buildings, primarily residential ones. The dimensions of these water cisterns varied over time. Originally, they were related to the floor area of the residence but in the recent past, the required volume was reduced to be related to the footprint of the building.

These regulatory provisions are, however, more honoured in the breach, even when reduced. This is not a recent phenomenon. Regulatory control in Malta has been in steep decline since the building boom of the 1960s. I remember, while I was still a student – many moons ago- leafing through a UN expert-financed report penned in the late 1960s which, even then, had measured the significant increase in foul water in our sewers during intense rainfall, clearly indicating that too much rainwater was going to waste notwithstanding the collection obligations. The situation has not improved since!

Instead of being collected in rainwater cisterns, in an ever-increasing number of cases rainwater is discharged directly onto our roads or into the public sewers. Large volumes of rainwater, which can be utilised for various purposes, are being wasted. Its use domestically could substantially reduce water bills.

When rainwater is discharged into our public sewers, not only does the water overflow onto our streets, but it also increases the costs of sewage purification unnecessarily.
The major culprits are a substantial portion of the developers of blocks of flats and maisonettes. The government, both directly, as well as through its agencies, has also (in the recent past) been responsible for the development of housing estates without providing for the collection of rainwater.

In particular, it is common knowledge that in cases where basement or semi-basement garages are constructed, the duty to provide for the collection of rainwater is very rarely complied with. The Planning Authority (PA) is responsible for determining and ensuring the observance of the conditions of development permits which, in most cases, specify the required capacity of a rainwater cistern.

Over the years, the Water Services Corporation (WSC) has taken over responsibility for the management of the public sewers from the former Drainage Department. This responsibility includes authorising the owners of newly- constructed properties to connect the drains with the public sewer. Is the WSC verifying that it is only the drains that are connected and, in particular, that rainwater pipes are not connected to the public sewer too? The obvious answer is provided by our streets on a rainy day. Clearly, no one is bothering to check what is connected to the public sewer.

This leads to the conclusion that, while the culprit for the present state of affairs is the building industry because, more often than not, it does not provide for rainwater storage in new developments, it is not the only one to blame. The authorities and government departments must take a substantial share of the blame for not complying with their regulatory responsibilities. The PA and the WSC could have stopped the abuse, but they did not.

A number of areas are practically out of bounds whenever heavy or continuous rain hits the Maltese islands. This is a source of danger and, in fact, the Civil Protection Department is heavily involved in assisting residents or motorists who are trapped as a result of flooding.

Money made available by the EU has been used to fund a project for the construction of underground tunnels, as a result of which rainwater from our streets and roads is being collected and discharged into the sea. Public funds have been used to cover up private irregularities.

The EU funds utilised in the construction of these tunnels have been used to squander a very precious resource. European taxpayers’ money has also have been flushed down the drain. This could have been put to a much better use had it been applied to address the lack of adequate rainwater harvesting in our towns and villages.

My advice to Edward Scicluna is that before wasting any more public funds he should ensure that the Planning Authority and the Water Services Corporation carry out their regulatory responsibilities. When they do, a considerable part of the problem of the flooding of our streets will disappear.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday: 4 November 2018

Taming the residential rental market

The proposals in the White Paper entitled Renting as a Housing Alternative is a breath of fresh air in the long overdue debate on the need to regulate the rental market for residential property.

As rightly pointed out in the White Paper, the Maltese community has developed an allergy to local rent regulation as, when it existed, it was generally too rigid. It oscillated from strict over-protection of the tenant to absolutely no controls.

For a very long time, we also ended up with temporary legislative provisions enacted during the war which were over-stretched too long after their useful life. In effect, this reluctance over the years to introduce proper landlord and tenant legislation effectively killed off the rental market for a long time and it is only as a result of this fact that Malta is a nation of home-owners: it would not have developed in this way, had the post-war governments got their priorities right.

The proposals put forward by the White Paper are generally a good step forward. If properly implemented, they will go a long way towards laying the foundations for a stable residential rental market based on adequate (and necessary) protection of both landlords and tenants. A serious debate is, however essential in order to avoid creating unnecessary difficulties.

The rental market is currently in a state of anarchy, where the only applicable rules that apply are those of the jungle – where might is right – because, so far, the state has abdicated its duties to protect the vulnerable from the excesses of the market. Subject to the three exceptions listed in the White Paper (temporary foreign workers, tertiary education students and temporary leases for persons repairing and/or upgrading their own homes) establishing the period of one year as the minimum length of a residential lease addresses the abuse currently resulting from short-term leases. Likewise, establishing as a duty of landlords to give a suitable notice period of their intention not to renew a lease is right and proper. It is in everybody’s interest that everyone is aware of their rights and duties, as this will lead to better planning on all sides and, consequently, to a more stable and civil relationship between landlords and tenants.

It was also about time that the deposit requested on the signing of lease agreements are properly regulated – both as to the actual need for a deposit, its quantum and the circumstances in which it would be reasonable for it not to be refunded. This is a subject about which countless stories of actual abuse on the part of both landlords and tenants abound and regulation of it will bring some sense into the subject.

It is also right that variations to the rent to be paid during the period of the lease are properly regulated,  thereby defining the limits of permissibility. Too strict a limitation, however, will lead to a preponderance of short-term lease agreements because the market prefers frequent rental revisions that enable the rent payable to be as close as possible to the full market value.

Registering lease agreements is a step forward. It will not only lead to a check to  ensure that agreements comply with the new legislation but will also have the potential to ensure that tax evasion associated with rent paid is history.

When considering the White Paper’s proposals, one should avoid introducing unnecessary exceptions as these will only serve to stultify the objective of the exercise: the development of a stable rental market for residential properties. In particular, the proposal in the White Paper to justify the premature determination of a lease agreement, when a landlord needs the property for his own use or in order to sell with vacant possession or else to redevelop it, is uncalled for. Given that the residential leases in question will most probably be short-term leases anyway (between one and five years) no harm will be done to anyone if the landlord patiently awaits until the end of the lease before taking back possession.

The current proposals, with the one exception referred to above, are an essential next step to help the residential rental market develop properly. On their own, however, they are insufficient because they must be supported by a Housing Authority that proactively addresses the needs of the vulnerable when facing the market, which is eager to fleece those who meekly submit themselves as they see no way of becoming homeowners!

 

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday – 22 October 2018

Nimmansaw is-suq tal-kera

Il-ġimgħa l-oħra 17-il għaqda, prinċipalment attivi fil-qasam soċjali, ippubblikaw dokument importanti intitolat “A Proposal for Rent Regulation in Malta” dwar dak li għandu jsir biex is-suq tal-kera jkun immansat. Dan id-dokument jipproponi li s-suq tal-kera jkun regulat u dan f’kuntest fejn dak kollu li għandu x’jaqsam mal-propjetá f’Malta tħalla jimxi għal riħu għal ħafna snin. Bosta approfittaw ruħhom minn dan u stagħnew inġustament, xi drabi minn fuq il-miżerja ta’ ħaddieħor.

Wasal iż-żmien għal ftit sens ta’ ġustizzja fis-suq tal-kera. Dawk vulnerabbli, bla ebda dubju l-iktar li ntlaqtu mir-rebus li ilu jiżviluppa prinċipalment mill-2008, ilhom jistennew li l-kuxjenza soċjali tal-pajjiż tagħti ftit kaz tas-suq tal-kera.

Il-ħolqien ta’ xibka soċjali, anke fil-qasam tal-kera, huwa prinċipalment responsabbilitá tal-Gvern. Il-Gvern jagħmel dan mhux biss billi jipprovdi oqsma residenzjali affordabbli għal dawk l-iktar vulnerabbli imma fuq kollox billi jiffaċilita l-aċċess għal suq tal-kera mmansat, jiġifieri suq relattivament ħieles imma suq li fl-istess ħin jkun wieħed ġust. Suq immansat hu wieħed li jopera f’parametri ġusti stabiliti mill-liġi: suq raġjonevoli għas-sidien imma ġust ma kull xorta ta’ inkwilin.

Il-mudell propost mill-koalizzjoni ta’ 17-il għaqda huwa bbażat fuq numru ta’ konsiderazzjonijiet bażiċi: id-dritt fundamentali għal post fejn toqgħod, id-distinzjoni ċara bejn id-drittijiet u d-doveri ta’ sid il-kera u l-inkwilin li t-tnejn għandhom dritt għal serħan il-moħħ, li jkun iffaċilitat is-suq tal-kera għall-kirjiet fit-tul, id-dritt tas-sidien li jistabilixxu l-kera inizzjali u l-mod kif din tkun varjata imma dejjem fil-qafas tal-parametri regolatorji intiżi biex jistabilixxu qafas ġust, kif ukoll li jkun iffaċilitat id-dħul fis-suq tal-kera ta’ propjetá presentement vojta għal diversi raġunijiet.

Id-dokument hu qasir ħafna, kull ma fih hu 12-il paġna. Imma hu mimli bi proposti li huma kemm validi kif ukoll li jħarsu fit-tul.

Hu pożittiv li s-Segretarju Parlamentari għad-Djar Roderick Galdes, li presentment qed jagħti l-aħħar irtokki għall- White Paper dwar is-suq tal-kera, meta kien qiegħed jiltaqa’ ma rapprezentanti ta’ dawn is-sbatax-il għaqda indika li, b’mod ġenerali, hu kien f’sintonija mal-għaqdiet fil-ħsieb tagħhom li jinbena mill-ġdid suq tal-kera li jkun jista’ jopera f’limiti ġusti u raġjonevoli.

Roderick Galdes, professjonist dwar l-ippjanar tal-użu tal-art, qiegħed f’posizzjoni unika bħala riżultat tal-esperjenzi inter-dixxiplinari tiegħu, li jassigura li l-politika dwar id-djar tidħol gradwalment fis-seklu wieħed u għoxrin wara li għal madwar tmenin sena kienet miżmuma milli tiżviluppa. Id-dikjarazzjoni tiegħu hi sors ta’ tama għal bosta li wara kollox hu possibli li suq tal-kera immansat jista’ jipprovdi kera ġusta.

Il-proposta fil-qalba tad-dokument tas-sbatax-il għaqda hi dwar il-ħtieġa li l-kirjiet ikunu kollha regolati minn ftehim li jsir bil-miktub. Dan il-ħsieb hu motivat mill-ħtieġa li d-drittijiet u l-obbligi kollha jkunu mfissra b’mod ċar u b’hekk jassigura l-kontroll tal-abbużi kontinwi, kemm mis-sidien kif ukoll mill-inkwilini. Fit-tfassil tal-proposti tagħhom il-koalizzjoni tal-għaqdiet għarblet l-esperjenzi ta’ diversi pajjiżi Ewropej, fejn (ġeneralment) jeżisti suq tal-kera b’saħħtu li hu ukoll wieħed ġust.

Alternattiva Demokratika ilha s-snin tħeġġeg dwar il-ħtieġa ta’ suq tal-kera b’saħħtu għax dan hu kemm ħtieġa soċjali kif ukoll ħtieġa ambjentali. Il-ħtieġijiet soċjali jkunu ndirizzati meta naqbdu t-triq li trid twassalna biex nassiguraw li d-dritt bażiku għal residenza diċenti jkun imnaqqax fil-liġijiet tagħna, kif ukoll applikata fil-prattika. Imma dan iwassal ukoll għal tnaqqis tal-impatti ambjentali tal-industrija tal-kostruzzjoni billi kemm-il darba jkun possibli li l-kera tkun waħda ġusta tonqos konsiderevolment il-pressjoni biex tkun żviluppata iktar art verġni, kif ukoll il-pressjoni fuq iż-żona ta’ konservazzjoni urbana u l-bini protett.

Alternattiva Demokratika taqbel b’mod ġenerali mal-proposta tal-għaqdiet. Sadanittant nistennew il-pubblikazzjoni tal-White Paper dwar ir-riforma tas-suq tal-kera u bla ebda dubju ser nieħdu sehem fid-dibattitu nazzjonali dwar is-suġġett. Għax wasal iż-żmien li s-suq tal-kera jkun immansat.

 

Ippubblikat fuq Illum : 4 ta’ Marzu 2018

 

Taming the Rental Market

The policy document entitled “A Proposal for Rent Regulation in Malta” published last week, has been endorsed by 17 NGOs that are mostly involved in the field of social action.

It is a proposal for rent regulation in a situation where everything concerned with property in Malta is spiralling out of control and has been in this state for a number of years. In the process, many have made lots of hay while the sun shone, frequently at the expense of vulnerable people.

It is about time that a sense of justice is restored in the rental market, and the sooner the better. The vulnerable – undoubtedly the hardest hit in the post 2008 free-for-all – have been patiently waiting for the country to listen to its social conscience regarding the rental market.

The creation of a social safety-net, even in rental matters, is primarily government’s responsibility. The government fulfils this not only through the direct provision of affordable housing to the most vulnerable, but also by facilitating access to a tamed rental market to the rest – a market which ought to be relatively free but fair at all times. A tamed market operates within reasonable and just limits: reasonable for landlords but also for a wide range of tenants.

The model proposed by the 17 NGO coalition is founded on a number of basic considerations: the fundamental right to a home, a clear demarcation of the rights and duties of landlords and tenants – both of which have the right to peace of mind, enhancing the long-let rental market, recognising the landlord’s right to establish the initial rent and its variation within a fair regulatory framework and incentivising entry into the rental market of property that is currently vacant for a variety of reasons.

The document is short and very brief, being just 12 pages long, yet it is brimming with far-reaching proposals.

It is encouraging that, when meeting representatives of the 17 NGOs, Parliamentary Secretary for Housing, Roderick Galdes – who is currently applying the finishing touches to a long-awaited White Paper on the Rental Market – indicated that he was generally on the same wavelength in seeking to reconstruct a rental market which operates within acceptable and socially fair limits.

Thanks to his inter-disciplinary experiences Galdes, a land-use planner by profession, is in a unique position to ensure that housing policy moves gradually into the 21st century after having been restrained for the past 80 years or so. His declaration is a source of hope to many that affordable housing can co-exist with a tamed rental market.

The central proposal of the NGO’s document is the need to ensure that all leases are drawn up in writing. This proposal is motivated by the need to clearly spell out rights and duties of both landlords and tenants, thereby ensuring that any abuse (by either) is, if possible, nipped in the bud. In their proposals, the coalition of NGOs drew on the experience of a multitude of other European countries where a healthy and (generally) fair rental market has been in existence for years.

For years, the Greens in Malta have been advocating the need of a healthy rental market, as this is both a social and an environmental necessity. Addressing the social necessity will ensure that we embark on the road which will lead to ensuring that the basic human right to having a decent home is entrenched in our laws and, hopefully, meticulously applied. This will also lead to a reduced environmental impact of the part of the construction industry, as the adequate development of a fair rental market will eventually decrease development pressures on virgin land as well as on urban conservation areas and protected buildings.

Alternattiva Demokratika – The Green Party is generally in agreement with the NGO Coalition’s proposal. We look forward to the publication of the White Paper on the reform of the rental market and will definitely be actively participating in the ensuing national debate.

Taming the rental market is a long overdue objective that should be relentlessly pursued.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday – 4th March 2018

A financial surplus, yet an environmental deficit

As was expected, last Monday’s budget speech solemnly announced a budget surplus for the first time in many years. However, the environmental deficit was, as usual, hidden between the lines.

The budget is aptly titled Preparing for the Future (Inlestu għall-Futur). In dealing with environmental issues, the budget speech does not lay down clearly the path the government will be following. At times, it postpones matters – proposing studies and consultations on subjects that have been in the public domain for ages.

On the subject of vacant properties, the government prefers the carrot to the stick. In order to get dilapidated and empty properties in village centres back on the rental market, it is offering a €25,000 grant to renovate such properties, but then rightly insists that, once renovated these should be made available for social housing for a minimum of 10 years. In previous budgets, various other fiscal incentives have been offered to encourage such properties being placed back on the market.

After offering so many carrots, it would also make sense to use the stick by way of taxing vacant properties in situations where the owner is continuously ignoring the signals sent regarding the social, economic and environmental impacts of empty properties.

The budget speech announced improvements to rental subsidies. However, it then opted to postpone the regulation of the rental market. It announced a White Paper on the subject which, when published, will propose ways of regulating the market without in any way regulating the subject of rents. In view of the currently abnormal situation of sky-high rents, this is sheer madness.

It is fine to ensure that the duties and responsibilities of landlords and tenants are clearly spelt out. Does anyone argue with that in 2017? It should have been done years ago. Instead of a White Paper a Legal Notice defining clear-cut duties and responsibilities would suffice: there is no need to wait.

It is, however, too much to bear when a “social democrat” Finance Minister declares  that he will not even consider rent control. There are ways and means of ensuring that the market acts fairly. Other countries have done it and are still doing it, as rental greed has no preferred nationality. Ignoring this possibility is not a good omen. The market should not be glorified by the Finance Minister; it should be tamed rather than further encouraged to keep running wild with the resulting social havoc it has created.

This brings us to transport and roads. The Finance Minister sends a clear message when he stated (on page 44 of the budget speech) that no one should be under the illusion that upgrading the road infrastructure will, on its own, resolve the traffic (congestion) problem. Edward Scicluna hints on the following page of his speech that he is not too happy with the current situation. He laments that the more developed countries encourage active mobility through walking, cycling and the use of motorbikes, as well as various means of public transport, simultaneously discouraging the use of the private car. However, he does not then proceed to the logical conclusion of his statement: scrapping large-scale road infrastructural projects such as the proposed Marsa flyover or the proposed tunnels below the Santa Luċija roundabout announced recently by Minister Ian Borg.

These projects, like the Kappara flyover currently in its final stages, will only serve to increase the capacity of our roads. And this means only one thing: more cars on our roads. It is certified madness.

While the Government’s policy of increasing the capacity of existing roads through the construction of flyovers and tunnels will address congestion in the short term, it will lead to increased traffic on our roads. This moves the problem to the future, when it will be worse and more difficult to tackle. The government is acting like an overweight individual who ‘solves’ the problem of his expanding wasteline by changing his wardrobe instead of going on a painful but necessary diet.

This cancels out the positive impact of other policies announced in the budget speech such as free public transport to young people aged between 16 and 20, free (collective) transport to all schools, incentives for car-pooling, grants encouraging the purchase of bicycles, pedelec bicycles and scooters, reduction in the VAT charged when hiring bicycles as well as the introduction of bicycle lanes, as well as encouraging the purchase of electric or hybrid vehicles.

All this contributes to the current environmental deficit. And I have not even mentioned issues of land use planning once.

Published in The Malta Independent on Sunday – 15 October 2017

Wiċċu bla żejt

 

Persuna li ma tistħix ngħidulha li jkollha wiċċ bla żejt. Taġixxi b’mod sfaċċat, qiesu ma ġara xejn. Bħall-membru parlamentari tal-PN David Agius.

David Agius, meta kien membru parlamentari fuq in-naħa tal-Gvern kien, flimkien ma oħrajn, ivvota favur li art f’diversi partijiet ta’ Malta, fil-parti l-kbira tagħha art verġni, tingħata għall-iżvilupp. Issa qasam fuq in-naħa l-oħra u qiegħed jappoġġa lir-residenti li qed jipprotestaw kontra dan l-iżvilupp li hu ivvota favur tiegħu.

F’Ħ’Attard, fl-inħawi magħrufa Tal-Idward, fil-periferija taż-żona tal-iżvilupp, David Agius jappoġġa lir-residenti li qed jipprotestaw biex art agrikola ma tkunx żviluppata. Ir-residenti huma rrabjati għax issa hemm it-tieni applikazzjoni biex ikun determinat kif tista’ tkun żviluppata l-art fl-inħawi tal-Idward.

David Agius kien hemm, kważi ċass, bla espressjoni f’wiċċu. Ħdax-il sena ilu, fil-Parlament kien ivvota favur l-istess żvilupp li issa kien qed jipprotesta kontra tiegħu!

L-istorja kollha hi dwar dak li hu magħruf bħala l-eżerċizzju ta’ razzjonalizzazzjoni li permezz tiegħu meded kbar ta’ art imxerrda mal-gżejjer Maltin, sa dakinnhar barra miż-żona tal-iżvilupp, saru tajbin għall-bini. Bil-vot tiegħu favur dan kollu David Agius għin biex dan ikun possibli li jsir. David Agius mhux waħdu. Fuq il-bankijiet tal-Opposizzjoni għad hemm diversi kollegi tiegħu li għamlu bħalu.

L-ippjanar għall-użu tal-art hu strument li għandu jkun użat fl-interess tal-komunitá kollha, u mhux fl-interess tal-ftit. Sfortunatament, illum, ħdax-il sena wara huwa ċar iktar minn qatt qabel kemm l-eżerċzzju ta’ razzjonalizzazzjoni injora lill-komunitajiet residenzjali tagħna madwar il-pajjiż kollu biex jaġevola lill-ispekulaturi.

Meta l-Parlament approva li meded kbar ta’ art barra miż-żona tal-iżvilupp isiru żviluppabbli kien jaf li ma kien sar l-ebda studju biex ikunu mkejla l-impatti kumulattivi li rriżultaw minn din id-deċiżjoni. Bħala riżultat ta’ dan, l-impatti tat-traffiku, l-kwalitá tal-arja, l-għargħar, id-dellijiet fuq bini diġa armat b’pannelli fotovoltajċi kif ukoll in-numru dejjem jiżdied ta’ propjetá vojta kienu fatturi injorati kompletament meta l-Parlament iddeċieda li japprova l-eżerċizzju ta’ razzjonalizzazzjoni.

Sfortunatament, l-Awtoritá tal-Ippjanar, minkejja li kienet taf b’dan in-nuqqas baqgħet għaddejja u ma ppruvatx tagħmel tajjeb għan-nuqqas tal-Parlament.

Sadanittant, fil-Parlament, il-Ministru Ian Borg huwa u jwieġeb għall-kritika ta’ din id-deċiżjoni tal-Awtoritá tal-Ippjanar ipponta subgħajh lejn l-Opposizzjoni. Imma dan mhux biżżejjed għax anke l-Partit Laburista wara 4 snin fil-Gvern ma għamel xejn dwar dan kollu.

Bosta minna niftakru li meta l-Partit Laburista kien fl-Opposizzjoni, fil-Parlament, kien ivvota kontra dan l-eserċizzju ta’ razzjonalizzazzjoni. Dan iwassal għall-mistoqsija inevitabbli dwar jekk il-Partit Laburista bidilx fehmtu. Għax ħlief għal ftit kummenti waqt il-kampanja elettorali l-Partit Laburista qatt ma qal xejn dwar dan kollu. Dan x’jfisser? Għandna ninterpretaw in-nuqqas ta’ azzjoni mill-Partit Laburista fil-Gvern bħala qbil mal-ezerċizzju ta’ razzjonalizzazzjoni?

Sa fejn naf jiena, Alternattiva Demokratika biss indirizzat dan kollu waqt il-kampanja elettorali li għadha kif intemmet. Dan billi pproponiet li dawn it-tip ta’ permessi m’għandhomx joħorġu f’dawk il-lokalitajiet fejn hemm numru konsiderevoli ta’ propjetajiet residenzjali vakanti.

Jidher imma li l-partiti fil-parlament issa bidlu ir-rwol tagħhom. David Agius hu l-eżempju ovvju: meta l-partit tiegħu kien fil-Gvern jappoġġa l-ispekulazzjoni, u issa li qiegħed fl-Opposizzjoni taparsi jappoġġa lir-residenti.

ippubblikat fl-Illum il-Ħadd  9 ta’ Lulju 2017

David Agius’s mental gymnastics

 

David was always into sport – primarily basketball, if I remember correctly. He has, however, now dedicated considerable time to the practice of mental gymnastics.

In Attard, in the area known as Tal-Idward – which is just outside the development zone – David has time and again publicly manifested his support of the residents’ cause: opposition to the development of agricultural land. The residents have now vented their anger in a pubic protest against a second planning control application that seeks to identify what would be permissible development in the tal-Idward area at Attard, the first application having been turned down around three years ago.

David Agius, the Opposition Whip, stood there, with a poker face, not batting an eyelid. Eleven years ago, in Parliament, he voted in favour of permitting the same development against which he is now demonstrating!

The issue is the so-called “rationalisation exercise” as a result of which considerable tracts of ODZ land all over the Maltese islands will henceforth to be considered as developable land. In 2006, with his favourable vote in Parliament, David Agius, contributed to making this possible. On the Opposition benches, he is accompanied by a number of other MPs who likewise voted in favour of more virgin agricultural land being given up for development.

Land-use planning should keep in mind the interests of the whole community and not only the interests of a select few. Unfortunately, eleven years down the line, it is now more clear than ever that the rationalisation exercise has  completely ignored the interests of the residential communities all over the islands in order to satisfy the greed of land speculators.

When Parliament considered the approval of removing ODZ status of large tracts of land, primarily (but not exclusively) agricultural land, it did so in full knowledge of the fact that the cumulative impacts of such a decision had not been assessed. Such an assessment, which is prescribed in the Strategic Environment Assessment Directive of the EU, would have been mandatory had Parliament’s decision been taken some days later than it actually was.

As a result, traffic impacts, air quality, flooding, the shadowing of existing residential property equipped with photo-voltaic panels and the issue of an ever increasing stock of vacant properties were completely ignored when Parliament approved the rationalisation exercise.

The Planning Authority, unfortunately, notwithstanding that it is aware of the shortcomings underpinning the rationalisation exercise, has failed to take steps to mitigate these shortcomings apart from minor cosmetic changes to the  proposals submitted on behalf of speculators.

In Parliament Minister Ian Borg rightly pointed his fingers at the Opposition when replying to criticism of the above-mentioned Planning Authority’s decision.  Blaming the Opposition is however not enough as the Labour Party had sufficient time to act on the matter in the past four years, but has not done so. Most of us remember that the Labour Party itself, when in Opposition, had voted against the rationalisation exercise in Parliament. This leads to the inevitable question as to whether or not Labour has since changed its mind as – with the exception of a few sympathetic comments on the eve of the June general election – it has never committed itself to changes to the rationalisation exercise. Are we to interpret the Labour Party’s non-action as a change of political position, signifying agreement with the rationalisation exercise in the form approved by Parliament in 2006?

As far as I am aware, Alternattiva Demokratika, the Green Party, is the only political party to propose a specific measure on changes to the rationalisation exercise. This was done once more during the recent electoral campaign. Such a measure proposed by Alternattiva Demokratika is linked to the large number of vacant properties, which should be a break applied by land-use planning regulators in order not to develop more land unnecessarily.

But is seems that the Labour Party and the PN have switched roles. Hence David’s mental gymnastics: supporting speculators when in government, supporting residents when in opposition.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday – 9 July 2017

ODZ lessons : from  Żonqor to Għargħur

 

A planning application (PA3592/16)  to construct a home for the elderly in the area between Naxxar and Għargħur was due to be discussed by the Planning Authority Board on Thursday. Less than five hours before it was due to begin, however, the public hearing was postponed. There may be valid reasons for the postponement but, so far, such reasons – if they exist – are still unknown.

For the past few months, Alternattiva Demokratika, the Green Party in Malta, has been supporting the residents who are opposed to the development of this privately-owned  home in their neighbourhood since the planning application was first published.

There are various reasons which justify opposition to this proposed development. When faced with such a proposal, the first reactions understandably relate to the direct impact that it will have on the residential community – during both the construction phase and  the operational phase of the proposed facility. During the construction phase, this impact would include excavation noise and vibration, the nuisance caused by airborne dust during construction and the general inconvenience resulting from a large construction site very close to a residential community.

Once the home is in use, the traffic generated at all times of the day – as well as the occupying of residents’ parking spaces by visitors – will be one of the most pressing concerns to justify opposition to the proposal.

These are sensible reasons which justify opposition to the proposed development, even though some mitigation of these impacts is generally possible.

In my opinion, however, before even considering the proposal, it has to be emphasised that the construction of a home for the elderly outside the development zone (ODZ) between Naxxar and Għargħur is a good reason for objection in principle.

On the grounds of social policy, to continue encouraging the institutional care of the aged by way of residential homes does not hold water. It makes much more sense to help the older members of our society to remain in their homes as an integral part of the community, close to their roots, as long as this is possible. This should be the preferred option, rather than forcing them to abandon their roots and move away to the outskirts of our towns and villages.

The Social Policy Ministry harps on about the integration of the elderly in the community while the authority responsible for land use planning is facilitating their segregation. Obviously, somewhere there is a lack of understanding and coordination.

Locating homes for the elderly on the edges of our towns and villages is, in the long term, unsustainable. In addition to fostering segregation, instead of encouraging inclusion, it creates an environmental deficit by encouraging the displacement of a number of the residents of our town and village centres to what is now considered as ODZ land. As a result, this leads to an increase in the number of vacant residential properties while simultaneously adding to the built footprint of the Maltese islands – as if we do not have more than enough developed land!

The 2011 Census identified Għargħur as having a 28.5 per cent residential property vacancy rate. The rate for Naxxar was 24.5. These official statistics, which include both vacant properties and partially vacant properties, will undoubtedly get much worse.

This leads to another argument against the proposal to provide a home for the elderly in this particular area.  How can we justify taking up ODZ land for further development when even the site selection exercise, carried out as part of the application process, identified alternative sites within the development zone?

It seems that not enough lessons have been learnt as a result of the Żonqor debacle.  Is it not about time that the Planning Authority puts its house in order?

Policy coordination between the Ministries concerned with social policy, sustainable development, the environment and land use planning is obviously the missing link and should be addressed immediately.

published in the Malta Independent on Sunday – 25 June 2017

Ghost towns in the Maltese Islands

The last Census, carried out in 2011 – with results published in late 2014 – revealed that in the Maltese islands only 68.2 per cent of residential property is regularly occupied. The rest is either vacant (18.4 per cent) or else used seasonally or for some secondary use (13.3 per cent).

If we focus on the regional data, the situation is much clearer. The rate of occupied residential property varies – from 79.5 per cent in the Western Region (between Dingli, Siġġiewi and Balzan) to 46.4 per cent in the Gozo and Comino Region. Table 1 gives the full data. Property that is completely vacant varies from a rate of 16 per cent in the Northern Region (between Naxxar and Mellieħa) to 23.9 per cent in Gozo and Comino as shown it Table 2. Finally, property which is used seasonally or for some secondary use varies from an insignificant three per cent in the Southern Harbour Region (Valletta to Xgħajra, up to Paola and Luqa] to a staggering 29.7 per cent in Gozo, with the Northern Region (between Naxxar and Mellieħa) with a 25.9 per cent rate being a close second as shown in Table 3. This data has been extracted from the 2011 Census Final Report pages 221 and 222.

This amounts to more ten times the size of residential Birkirkara, meaning that the vacant or underutilised properties in Malta and Gozo at this time are equivalent to 10 ghost towns – each of which is equivalent to Birkirkara, the largest locality in the Maltese Islands. This represents a substantial waste of public funds. As a minimum it means that funds spent on the development of the infrastructure (roads, electricity, water, drainage and telecommunications) for these 10 ghost towns went down the drain and could have been mostly avoided.

While all this built-up residential property is vacant or under-utilised, the building industry keeps building more – thereby adding to the glut. They call this progress and a significant contribution to the economy. Alternattiva Demokratika – the Green Party and the environment lobby in Malta has been vociferous about this over-development of the Maltese Islands. This state of affairs has been worsening, with neither the Labour Party nor the Nationalist Party giving a fig about the consequences.

Instead of addressing the issue, the PN government increased the size of the development zone through the addition of the so-called “rationalisation” exercise. On the other hand, the Labour Party has, during the past four years, encouraged more development.

Last March I had the opportunity to represent a number of Mosta residents in opposing the scheming of a large tract of land at Tad-Durumblat, Mosta. This concerned 38,600 square metres of land which formed part of the rationalisation exercise piloted in 2006 by a PN-led government. Mosta has a sizable vacant and under-utilised residential area consisting of 19.4 per cent of the housing stock as in November 2011. The Executive Council of the Planning Authority accepted my arguments and rejected the relative planning control application, thereby saving – at least temporarily – this large tract of land from the greedy forces of development.

Faced with this situation, AD considers that the number of vacant properties in any locality should be an important criterion in determining whether development applications for larger areas are approved or not. This should also apply to the large tracts of land forming part of the rationalisation exercise, in respect of which the determination of the applicable scheme should not be decided if the number of vacant properties is substantial.

It is about time that this situation is addressed and for this purpose, AD’s election manifesto is making this specific proposal: in those localities where the number of vacant properties is substantial, large-scale residential projects will not be permitted.

This would be a good first step in addressing Malta’s ghost towns, ensuring that their enlargement is restrained and thereby applying a significant brake to over-development in the Maltese Islands.

 published in The Malta Independent on Sunday, 14 May 2017

 

Region No. per cent
Southern Harbour 29,107 75.9
Northern Harbour 46,181 72.9
South Eastern 22,279 71.6
Western 19,584 79.5
Northern 23,989 58.1
Gozo and Comino 11,630 46.4

Table 1: Occupied property by Region 

 

Region No. per cent
Southern Harbour 1,113   3
Northern Harbour 6,650 10.5
South Eastern 3,294 10.6
Western 6,33  2.6
Northern 10,692 25.9
Gozo and Comino 7,444 29.7

Table 2: Property used seasonally or for secondary use by Region

 

Region No. per cent
Southern Harbour 8,126 21.2
Northern Harbour 10,556 16.7
South Eastern 5,552 17.8
Western 4,420 17.9
Northern 6,582 16.0
Gozo and Comino 5,996 23.9

 Table 3: Vacant Property by Region