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

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Cleaning up the mess

 

published Tuesday July 8, 2008

by Carmel Cacopardo

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Over the years governments could not be bothered with rent reform. The resulting mess is such that the purposes of rent reform at this stage is primarily one of restoring sanity in the use of built-up resources. The White Paper aims at removing the accumulated injustices faced by generations of landlords, without creating new ones, and paves the way to reduce the perceived need to embark on more so-called development.

As aptly pointed out by the White Paper, the decision whether to buy or to rent is an economic choice depending on whether the annual rental value of a property is more attractive than the cost of purchasing property. This is an issue for the market to resolve over a period of time. To date the state has repeatedly intervened, strangling the rental market, encouraging home ownership and thereby putting on high gear the rape of our countryside and village cores. Rent reform is thus not just concerned with the rights of landlords and tenants but with housing policy, sustainable development and social and environmental justice.

A useful point of departure in this discussion is that throughout the years, primarily as a result of the maze of rental legislation, it has been next to impossible to distinguish between the right to accommodation and the right to own a home.

The concept of home ownership as successfully marketed by different governments and skilfully manipulated by the construction industry is considered a right.

The result is that our families are burdened with mortgages spanning a lifetime for properties which rather than providing them with a home are providing them with an investment which most can ill-afford but yet are forced to have.

The net beneficiary is the building industry, which as a result of this artificial demand keeps on churning out residential units at increasing prices and reducing sizes, at the end pleasing no one but themselves and the banks!

The state through the Housing Authority (and its predecessors) is the major culprit in this respect. Throughout the years political parties viewed the concept of home ownership as the means through which to make good the vacuum created by rent legislation, which was patched up in time of emergencies and has thereafter been retained as a permanent relic of these emergencies.

The White Paper entitled The Need For Reform. Sustainability, Justice And Protection, seeks to reverse all this. It attempts a solution through 33 recommendations most of which are valid and should be supported.

They are, however, underpinned by three issues which merit some discussion.

Firstly, there are too many perceived exemptions.

The separate consideration of agricultural leases may be valid. But this has to be considered within the context of a detailed examination of the agricultural sector, including measures required to halt the further sub-division of agricultural holdings. The party in government had tackled this issue in an electoral manifesto presented for the 1981 general elections. It needs to be revisited urgently and simultaneously with an examination of agricultural leases.

The White Paper is also not applicable to political parties, band clubs, sports clubs and other organisations of a social nature. Social Policy Minister John Dalli has clarified that this area of the rental market will be liberalised too, although they are not covered by the White Paper recommendations.

As long as the issue of rent reform applicable to agricultural property, political parties and other organisations is also tackled in the same spirit found in the White Paper there should not be any difficulty with its acceptability.

The second issue is an anachronism in that the White Paper selects the traditional family as worthy of social protection and dumps emerging relationships. This ostrich-like social policy ignores cohabiting couples and same sex couples. I have no difficulty in subscribing to a policy of reinforcing and defending the traditional family but I find it reprehensible that those who select an alternative lifestyle are dumped as not being worthy of the same civil rights as the rest of us.

Thirdly, the White Paper creates transitional protective periods which are too long. The 20-year transition period for commercial leases, in particular, could easily be halved. This would reduce the urge of those who could be tempted to lobby for a reversal of the proposed reforms.

Barring the above, the White Paper is positive and presents a reasonable proposal on the basis of which a reform of rent legislation can be carried out. If the government takes serious note of all the alternative proposals that will be announced in the coming weeks, the White Paper recommendations may be substantially improved.

Politika tal-lanzit – frott il-paniku

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L-artiklu tal-lum ta’ Daphne Caruana Galizia f’ The Malta Independent on Sunday bit-titlu Choose Labour for a New Beginning hu tat-tqalliegħ tal-istonku. Kumbinazzjoni jikkumplimenta l-billboards li tella’ l-PN madwar Malta illum.Ma tistax tpoggi lill-membri parlamentari laburisti fl-istess keffa. L-istess jgħodd ghall-dawk tal-PN.Daphne tiftakar fl-artiklu tagħha stess ta’ nhar il-15 ta’ Lulju 2007 fil-Malta Independent (daily) intitolat : Get rid of him, for God’s sake dwar il-Ministru Jesmond Mugliett. Dak l-artiklu kienet ikkonkludietu bis-segwenti kliem :“The Transport Minister’s behaviour in sticking his neck out for his corrupt canvasser is one of the nails that will lose the battle for this government – because, in turn, it made the Prime Minister stick out his neck for him, and now look what’s happened.”  Jesmond Mugliett u uħud mill-Membri Parlamentari Laburisti li semmiet ma hemmx x’tagħżel. Fl-istess ilma qegħdin.Inħoss iżda b’mod partikolari li kienet inġusta ma’ Joe Brincat, Shadow Minister għall-Ambjent f’isem il-Partit Laburista. Tajjeb li ngħid li Joe Brincat kien il-Ministru responsabbli ghall-Housing fil-legislatura 1976-81 li beda l-attakk kontra l-favoritiżmu politiku fl-allokazzjoni tal-housing socjali.Tant kien effettiv li fil-Partit Laburista dakinnhar ħadmu kontrieh u ma irnexxielux jitla’ fil-Parlament ħlief b’elezzjoni każwali. Kien hu ukoll l-uniku wieħed mill-grupp parlamentari laburista li kien preżenti ghall-funeral ta’ Raymond Caruana f’Diċembru 1986 fil-Gudja. Jekk niftakar tajjeb kien akkumpanjat minn ibnu.B’mod pubbliku kien l-uniku wieħed mill-MLP li dakinnhar iddisassoċja ruħu mill-vjolenza politika. Dakinhar kien Deputy Leader tal-MLP.Bħal kull wieħed minna għandu d-difetti tiegħu u mhux dejjem qbilt ma dak li jgħid.Imma jkolli nghid li nippreferi elf Joe Brincat minn nies bħal Jesmond Mugliett.B’artikli bħal tal-lum Daphne qegħda tippropaga politika tal-lanżit.Dan hu kollu frott il-paniku.