Planning application PA00777/22 : another mega-development at Marsaskala

(photo is the official Parliamentary voting record of those voting in favour of the rationalisation exercise: that is those voting in favour of extending the building development boundary into what was then ODZ-Outside the Development Zone)

It would be pertinent to remember that on the 26 July 2006 Malta’s Parliament approved a resolution which we normally refer to as the “rationalisation” exercise, as a result of which extensive stretches of land until then outside the development zone (ODZ) were declared as land suitable for development.

The PN parliamentary group, supported the Lawrence Gonzi led government and voted in favour of developing ODZ land whilst ironically the Labour Opposition had then voted against the proposal. This is not just history. It is still affecting our daily lives. Today, 16 years later some are realising for the first time how land use planning was screwed by the then Environment Minister George Pullicino!

Three of the Members of Parliament who had then voted in favour of developing ODZ land are still MPs today.

Their names come to mind when considering the latest mega-development proposal, this time at iż-Żonqor on the outskirts of Marsaskala, through development application PA00777/22.  The development application this time concerns a 5,000 square metre area of rural land over which it is proposed to construct 135 residential units and 180 basement garages. These will be spread over 10 different levels, four of them below ground floor level after excavating a substantial amount of rock.

The basic decision permitting today’s proposed development was taken on the 26 July 2006 when the rationalisation exercise was approved by Parliament on the proposal of a PN-led government. No studies were then carried out as to the environmental impacts of the development resulting from the rationalisation exercise. Specifically, the cumulative impact of the development proposed was ignored contrary to the then emerging environmental acquis of the EU relative to the assessment of plans and programmes, known as the SEA Directive (Strategic Environment Assessment Directive) which Directive entered into force on the days immediately following the approval by the Maltese Parliament of the rationalisation exercise.

The basic question to ask is whether we really need such large-scale developments. Why are we determined as a country to develop every square centimetre of our land? Isn’t it about time that a moratorium on such large-scale development enters in force?

The rationalisation exercise should be scrapped at the earliest and all rationalised land returned to its former ODZ status the soonest. This is what we should expect of any government which (unashamedly) proclaims that the environment and our quality of life is now its priority.

It has taken our residents 16 years to become sensitised to the large-scale havoc which land use planning has degenerated to.  Throughout these 16 years all genuine environmentalists have been pointing this out. Unfortunately, some only react when large scale development is very close to their backyard, otherwise they do not care. The writing has been on the wall for a number of years, yet it was ignored for quite some time.

One mega-project after the other has been eroding our quality of life, the latest one being proposal PA00777/22 which goes by this description: To excavate and construct 180 garages at basement level, 2 Class 4B shops, and 135 overlying units. The site is at iż-Zonqor, Marsaskala, but it should be everyone’s concern.

It is about time that we stop all this in the same way that the proposed Marina at Marsaskala had to be shelfed, hopefully for good!

published on Malta Independent on Sunday : 5 June 2022

After the agricultural fair has ended

The onslaught on agricultural land is continuous. It is unfortunately many a time abated by land use planning operatives. It would be an understatement to emphasise that they should know better.

Among the countless examples faced on a continuous basis I can list the following: the over-development of road infrastructure, quarries, boatyards, solar farms and fireworks factories proposed in rural areas and in lieu of agricultural land. Added to these examples one can add the craze of changing the use of agricultural land into picnic or barbeque areas. This creation of recreational areas is squeezing out agriculture! All this would not happen without the complicity of the Planning Authority and those appointed to lead it.

The agricultural fair organised last week exposed another aspect: the anguish of the farming community. A discussion organised within the precincts of the grounds of the agricultural fair focused on food security. The spiralling cost of imported animal feed fuelled by the Russian invasion of Ukraine as well as international business pressures are adding to the problems of those involved in animal husbandry.

Farmers are being pushed out of the land they have been tilling at an increasing rate. No one in his right senses would dare invest in the modernisation of an agricultural holding in such a climate. The banks, on the other hand, emphasised the farmers who took part in the discussion, are not forthcoming with loans to facilitate matters, most probably as they consider the risks involved too high.

In the meantime, eviction of farmers from the land they have tilled for generations continues unabated as government takes too long to come up with a reform of the agricultural lease legal setup.

Government has, for all intents and purposes, abandoned the agricultural community. In addition, it has repeatedly carved agricultural land into new or widened roads. The irrigated agricultural land at Attard had to make way for the so-called Central Link. Shortly more agricultural land on the outskirts of  Qormi will make way for improvements to the Mrieħel bypass project.  Add this to the planned havoc continuously emanating from the Planning Authority and you can easily understand what the agricultural community has to bear.

It is indeed ironic that a government which boasts of a programme which is intended to create more open spaces is at the same time determined to ruin more natural open spaces on the outskirts of our towns and villages.

It is clear that government has taken a basic political decision: cars have a priority over agriculture. This decision is clearly manifested in the manner of operation of Infrastructure Malta which is gobbling up extensive agricultural land which stands in the way of its projects. It is further manifested in the absolute silence of the Agricultural Ministry when it is faced with this behaviour. The agricultural minister is apparently more interested in our heritage which leaves him little time to focus on the needs of agriculture and the farmers who depend on it for their livelihood.

Given the ever-increasing population on these islands it was always very clear that local agriculture could never, on its own, suffice to cater for our needs. Supplementing local agricultural produce with imported produce should be done with care as there is always a danger that the local market can be flooded with low priced goods which make the life of our farmers more miserable than it already is!

The organisation of the agricultural fair was a good idea. It must however be supplemented with a heavy dose of good faith which is missing in the attitudes of the holders of political office in the Ministry of Agriculture through the rest of the year, that is when there is no agricultural fair!

published on the Malta Independent on Sunday : 29 May 2022

From Dubai to Singapore

Last week, the President of the Republic, laying out the programme for the new government in what is known as the speech from the throne, emphasised that the environment is a core value for this government. Reading through the speech prepared by government, his Excellency was clear by dwelling on a number of different topics of considerable environmental importance.

However, Dr Vella was unfortunately not advised as to how and when the government intends to address its continuous contradictions in its drive to shift its focus from the infrastructure to the environment.

The elastic environmental politics presented by this government ranges from more flyovers to achieving carbon neutrality, simultaneously being dependent on two interconnectors tapping the Sicilian energy market.

Previous governments led by the Labour party had sought to transform Malta into another Dubai, that is a land of high rises and extensive land reclamation . The attempt at Dubai-ification embarked on by the Muscat led government will apparently now be transformed into a Singaporization as emphasised by infrastructure Minister Aaron Farrugia. This is the implementation of the policy of continuity which his Excellency was apparently not sufficiently advised about.

The current crop will do their best to outshine their predecessors. Since there is not much more land to ruin, they have therefore turned their gaze towards the sea which they will be ruined in due course.

Preliminary studies carried out in the past had identified the areas in Maltese waters where land reclamation could be considered, subject to more in-depth studies. The coastal areas identified and studied are those along the  Magħtab/Baħar iċ-Ċagħaq coastline and the Xgħajra/Marsaskala coastline. These are the coastal zones which have to be watched and protected.

The basic question to ask before embarking on planning any land reclamation projects is: what do we need land reclamation for? In the past land was reclaimed to construct the Freeport or to protect the coast at Msida, Gżira and elsewhere.

If any new pressing need is identified one should carefully consider them.

The Netherlands used land reclamation successfully to adequately manage its low-lying land. Hong Kong made use of land reclamation to create high value land required for its airport on the Chek Lak Kok island. Through land reclamation Singapore expanded its container port, an essential cornerstone in its economy.

The way to go about tackling land reclamation is through serious public consultation. Labour in government has, so far, only consulted developers on land reclamation. It has, in the recent past, only consulted those who were seeking new ways to make a quick buck! These are the fourth-floor guys who are only interested in making hay while the sun shines.

If government is serious about land reclamation it should immediately publish a list of its proposed projects. This should be accompanied by a draft national land-reclamation strategy for public consultation. At this point consultation should not be with the speculation lobby: it has already been extensively consulted. Consultation at this stage should primarily be with environmental NGOs and the coastal communities, in particular those directly impacted.

Having said the above I do not think that land reclamation is or should be a priority. Rather, the priority should be the restructuring of the construction industry: specifically cutting it down to size and putting it to good use.

The country would be economically, environmentally and socially much better off if the construction industry is assisted in its much-needed restructuring. It would undoubtedly need to shed labour which can be absorbed by other sectors of the economy. Retraining would be required to ease the entry of the shed labour force into other economic areas.

After years of haphazard and abusive land-use planning, land reclamation is the last thing we need!

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 15 May 2022

Planning is for people

Land use planning should, and can, be developed into an effective tool to combat the impacts of climate change. This can be done by effectively encouraging development which contributes to reducing climate change impacts.

Apparently, it is too much to expect from our authority responsible for land use planning.

The development of large commercial centres may make economic sense, but do they make environmental and social sense?

This is what sustainable development is all about: that economic development must continuously factor in environment impacts as well as social considerations. The term sustainable development is on everyone’s lips, but it is definitely and continuously ignored when push comes to shove. When decisions are taken, unfortunately it is the euros which take a priority over sustainability.

It is not just about the actual land to be developed, or the buildings to be redeveloped. Much more has to be taken into consideration in each and every decision taken.

Consider for example the Lidl network or another multiple supermarket competitor chain currently planning an alternative network in Malta. Their impacts are multiple. There is definitely an impact on the existing commercial community which can be gauged by a retail impact assessment. There are however also widespread social and environmental impacts which are generally minimised or ignored by all the decision takers.

The social impact definitely needs a meticulous assessment. The changing nature of our residential neighbourhoods through the squeezing out of the small outlets, both commercial and artisanal, and consequently forcing all residents to look far beyond the community and its neighbourhoods for their needs, at times even their basic daily needs, is a major impact. This has and is still transforming our localities and consequently our communities such that at times you need to travel from one locality to another to satisfy your basic needs. This is not a positive development, yet it has been continuously ignored.

A direct impact of all this is that the expense to satisfy our needs is now increased to include the environmental impact of travel with the consequential contribution to climate change. Expenses are not only those which are paid in euro. These specific expenses are a charge debited to our ecological account.

Sustainable land use planning can put an end to all this. Unfortunately, it is not, as climate change impact has not been embedded as an essential element to be addressed by local land use planning!

Current land use planning practice needs to be turned on its head in order to prioritise community needs and impacts on the ecology over the requirements of the economy.

This is what the 15-minute city concept is all about! In reality it is nothing new as it signifies having our basic necessities close by, as in times gone by, when our localities were smaller and alive with vibrant communities. Small is beautiful we were told some years back by Erst Schumacher. The full title of his opus is more revealing: “Small is Beautiful. Economics as if people mattered.” People should be the focus of all our activity. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

I still vividly remember the phrase “planning is for people” in one of the André Zammit’s first urban planning lectures I attended at university. It was a phrase lifted from the UK Skeffington report drawn up in 1969 and examining the participation of the public in land use planning!

Where are the people and their needs in our land use planning? Following the various land use planning cases as they develop, it is clear that as practised locally, land use planning is more a compendium of rights relative to property development than a process regulating the use of land for the ultimate benefit of the whole community. Planning is for people, not for profit!

Land use planning: as if people really mattered!

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday 8 May 2022

Urban open spaces and climate change

After a free-for-all building spree during which the development of multiple private gardens in our towns and villages were targeted, mostly successfully, our towns and villages have been promised open spaces. This, it is being stated, will bring nature closer to people! A shining sun which will hopefully produce less hay!

The implementation of the first such proposal for an open space is nearing conclusion. An open space in the Tar-Rabbat Housing Estate in Ħamrun has been partially built-up to produce an artificial garden on concrete stilts! The area below the concrete stilts is being reserved for parking of cars! This is definitely not an open space.

The open spaces which we need should not add to the concrete jungle which has developed unabated around us over the years. The open spaces should be free from any form of construction and should be the opportunity to squeeze out cars from the urban environment, preferably relegating them to the periphery of our towns and villages. The open spaces are meant to re-introduce nature into our lives, even if in a very limited way.

Our urban areas have been left to develop on their own for quite too long. As a result, they have been guided by business-friendly or market-friendly authorities, producing the mess of an urban jungle we have to face every day. This is a mess resulting from political decisions which have ensured that profits repeatedly have a priority over people and their quality of life.

The availability of funds to introduce open spaces in our urban areas is a unique opportunity to redesign the urban environment such that it becomes people-friendly. It is also an opportunity to bring urban planning in line with the requirements of climate change mitigation policy.

Earlier this month the latest report on climate change was published by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC). The document, almost 3000 pages long, emphasises that without profound changes to our lifestyle the Paris 2015 Climate Summit objectives will not be attained.

As islands, Malta and Gozo should be at the forefront in the international climate change debate. Climate change is already here. Extremes of temperature, long periods of drought or sudden floods are no longer a rare occurrence in the Maltese islands. We have experienced this repeatedly over the past years.

A sea-level rise will impact our coastal areas. Large stretches of our coastline are developed and used for residential purposes or else they are utilised for the maritime and tourism industries. A sea level rise, dependent on its extent, would severely impact all this activity. It is in our interest that any sea level rise resulting from climate change would be minimal, if at all. This can only happen if the climate mitigation targets agreed to at the Paris Summit are adhered to the soonest.

One of the ideas doing the rounds in the climate change debate is to rethink our urban design strategy as one of the basic tools with which to combat the climate crisis. The idea crystallised as “the 15-minute city” by Carlos Moreno, an architect advising the Paris Mayor, entails turning current urban planning on its head to ensure that all our needs are available not more than 15 minutes away on foot or by bike! Consequently, our dependency on the car would be done away with, as a result even claiming back our streets. The open spaces initiative could fit in perfectly within the parameters of the “15-minute city”.

Can we reassess the nature and quality of our urban lifestyle within this framework?

The Covid-19 pandemic has given most of us a taste of working from home. If this could become a permanent feature of our urban lifestyle, some of us would not need not travel to work every day. This would address and potentially reduce our addiction to the car. Over a period of time this would impact our carbon emissions.

Our contribution to climate change mitigation as a result of which we can accelerate our path to carbon neutrality could be achieved without impacting our mobility. Through a judicious use of public transport, and the facilitation of other sustainable mobility options our mobility can in fact be substantially improved as a result.

Come October all public transport will be free of charge. Hopefully it will also be reliable and efficient. If adequately planned this could be a turning point in climate change mitigation measures as over a period of time it can lead to a reduction of cars from our roads. Initially such a reduction would necessarily be of a temporary nature. Eventually we can move towards a permanent change.

Within this context open spaces adequately planned have a pivotal role. They improve our quality of life by bringing it closer to nature in our 15-minute cities.

Published in The Malta Independent on Sunday: 24 April 2022

Climate Change and the 15-minute city

The latest report on climate change was published by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) earlier this month. The full document is almost 3,000 pages long!

The current international debate on climate change is focusing on whether the objectives of the 2015 Paris Climate Summit are achievable. It is clear to all that, without profound and imminent changes in our lifestyles, these objectives will not be achieved.

The clear objective agreed to in Paris is to reduce carbon emissions in order to achieve carbon neutrality soonest. This would ensure that the global mean temperature does not surpass the pre-industrial temperature by more than 1.5ºC. This would in turn tame the climate over time.

As an island, Malta should be at the forefront in the international climate change debate. We will be severely impacted like all other countries. In fact, we are already at the receiving end of the impact of extreme weather conditions at an increased frequency. Long periods of drought are more frequent. Likewise, we have experienced more than a fair share of floods, which have caused considerable damage all over the islands.

As islands, sea-level rise will add to our problems in Malta and Gozo in a manner which is dependent on the rate at which this will take place. A substantial part of our essential infrastructure lies along our coast. This will potentially be severely impacted as a result of a sea-level rise. Just think about the impacts on the tourism infrastructure, for example.

One of the ideas doing the rounds in the climate change debate is to rethink the way we plan our cities as one way in which to combat the climate crisis. The idea crystallised as ‘the 15-minute city’ by Carlos Moreno, an architect advising the Paris mayor, entails turning current urban planning on its head to ensure that all our needs are available not more than 15 minutes away.

Moreno speaks of a social circularity for living in our urban spaces based on six essential functions: to live in good housing, to work close by, to reach supplies and services easily, to access education, healthcare and cultural entitlement locally by low-carbon means.

Can we reassess the nature and quality of our urban lifestyles within these parameters?

COVID-19 has given most of us a taste of remote working. In a limited way, this could become a permanent feature of our urban lifestyles. Some of us need not travel to work every day. With proper planning, remote working could reduce a substantial number of cars from our roads permanently and, consequently, the associated carbon emissions.

In the Maltese islands, distance should not be an issue: almost everywhere is within easy reach. Our National Transport Master Plan, in fact, advises us that 50 per cent of trips carried out by our private vehicles are for short distances, having a duration of less than 15 minutes. Achieving 15-minute cities should not be that difficult if we put our heads together to address it.

Our contribution to climate change mitigation, as a result of which we can accelerate our path to carbon neutrality, could be achieved through a substantial reduction of cars from our roads. We can achieve this without impacting our mobility. Through a judicious use of public transport and the facilitation of other sustainable mobility options, our mobility can be substantially improved as a result.

Come October, all public transport will be free. Hopefully, it will also be reliable and efficient. If adequately planned, this could be a turning point in climate change mitigation measures as, over a period of time, it can lead to a reduction of cars from our roads. Initially, such a reduction would necessarily be of a temporary nature. Eventually, we can move towards a permanent change.

Real change takes time to achieve.

Giving shape and form to 15-minute cities could be the next realistic challenge in our climate mitigation road map. All that is required is the political will.

published in The Times of Malta: 21 April 2022

Climate change requires behavioural change

Climate change is nature’s reaction to the cumulative impacts it has sustained as a result of human  behaviourover the years. Long periods of drought or intensive rainfall leading to flooding, longer periods of sunshine, extremes of temperature are all too familiar nowadays.

It has been emphasised time and again that we need to achieve carbon neutrality at the earliest. This signifies that the amount of carbon emissions resulting from our activities must be less than the carbon being stored in the various carbon sinks.

We must address each and every one of our activities as the carbon emissions from all of them, added up, will bring us closer to or further away from our targets.

Addressing climate change is a political issue. It involves policy decisions. If we intend to address climate change these political decisions should be complimentary and contribute to achieving the goal of mitigating climate change as well as addressing its causes.

The decision to substitute the Delimara power station running on heavy fuel oil with one using natural gas has contributed substantially to reducing Malta’s carbon emissions.

On the other hand, the current policy of encouraging the use of fuel guzzling cars and yachts pulls in the opposite direction. Increasing the capacity of our roads and planning new yacht marinas is not a positive contribution to addressing climate change. Yet it goes on, one decision after the other.

The decision to start the long road towards electrification of our roads was not linked with a decision to have a moratorium on new fuel stations. Why does current policy encourage new fuel stations when their operational days are clearly numbered?

It would be pertinent to point once more to the Transport Master Plan which emphasises that around 50 per cent of trips made with private cars in Malta are for short distances, taking up less than 15 minutes. Yet local and regional sustainable mobility is not encouraged. A behavioural change in our mobility patterns at a local and regional level could remove a substantial number of cars from our roads. Why is this not actively encouraged?

Transport policy is unfortunately not climate friendly. This needs to change the soonest if we are to make any headway in addressing climate change.

The carbon neutrality of our buildings is also of crucial importance in our climate change strategy. I have repeatedly emphasised the need of entrenching solar rights thereby ensuring that solar energy can be generated in more buildings. In addition, planning policy should establish that individual carbon neutral buildings have all the energy required for the use of the particular buildings generated on site. This would of necessity limit buildings to dimensions whose energy needs can be catered for through solar energy generated on site. This would limit building heights and substantially reduce the construction of penthouses.  Land use planning can contribute substantially to climate change mitigation!

The basic problem with climate change issues is that the link between our behaviour and the carbon cycle is not obvious or visible to the untrained eye. This makes it easier for those who seek to avoid or reduce the uptake of actions mitigating climate change.

We owe it to future generations to do all we can to address the accumulated impacts on the climate. Taming the present can ensure that there is a future.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 23 January 2022

Saving the little that we have

Almost two years ago, Architect Edward Said submitted a request to the Planning Authority and the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage in order that they take steps to protect a Villa along the St Julian’s promenade. The Villa known as Palazzina Vincenti was designed and constructed for his own use by Architect Gustavo Romeo Vincenti. Architect Vincenti died in 1974.

As far as is known, neither the Planning Authority nor the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage have acted upon the submissions received requesting the protection of Palazzina Vincenti. At the time of writing the Superintendence has passed the buck to the Planning Authority! In the meantime, a development application has been submitted for the demolition of Palazzina Vincenti and its substitution with a 17-storey 136 room hotel, including three levels below street level providing garage space for 58 cars.

In a report drawn up by Architect Edward Said, Palazzina Vincenti is described as “a masterpiece of architecture defined by pure geometric volumes”.  It is considered as one of the earliest examples of the use of reinforced concrete in domestic architecture in Malta.  Quoting from a 2018 Masters of Architecture dissertation by David Ellul, Architect Said emphasises that by taking full advantage of the potential of reinforced concrete, Vincenti’s artistic expression was freed from the limitations of traditional materials. The result is this masterpiece which can be lost quite soon!

Even though to the untrained eye Palazzina Vincenti may seem to be an ugly building specimen, ill-fitting in its present-day concrete jungle surroundings, it is still a masterpiece worth preserving for posterity.

I fail to understand why two years after a request for protection has been submitted no action has yet been taken. As a result of such inaction, the message conveyed by the authorities is a very clear one: that the site occupied by Palazzina Vincenti is ripe for development. This is an inevitable conclusion conveyed by those in charge as a result of their failure to act.

At this point in time, as a minimum, it is expected that an emergency conservation order protecting Palazzina Vincenti is issued urgently. This would be a clear sign to those currently benefitting from a prolonged phase of “development greed” that a red line has been drawn around our heritage, thereby protecting it. It would also provide some breathing space which would be of considerable help in order that the Planning Authority may bring its house in order.

Some have the mistaken idea that all our heritage is necessarily old, very old, going back centuries. This is certainly not the case as this specific architectural masterpiece is less than 75 years old. Unfortunately, there have been other worthy examples of our architectural heritage which have been lost through carelessness, insensitivity and institutional ignorance.

I could remind readers of another outstanding example of modern architecture which has gone to the dogs, this time in Gozo, some 15 years ago. Parts of the Qala Primary School in Gozo were demolished to make way for an Institute of Tourism Studies campus in Gozo. The said school was designed and constructed under the supervision of Architect Joseph Huntingford who as the government architect in charge of schools was responsible for most new schools constructed in Gozo between 1950 and 1961.

Way back in 2006 the Chamber of Architects and Civil Engineers had described the Qala Primary School as one of the finest examples of modern architecture on the island. Even then the Planning Authority was advised to handle our heritage with care. But it was of no use. The advice was ignored as parts of the school were demolished to make way for the ITS campus.

There is still time to save Palazzina Vincenti from being sacrificed on the altar of “development greed”. We need to be more appreciative of our heritage. We have so little of it. I am not however so sure as to whether the Planning Authority is capable of taking decisive action. It has been desensitised for far too long.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday: 12 December 2021

The regeneration of Marsa

The public consultation which commenced earlier this week relative to the regeneration of the inner part of the Grand Harbour along the coastal area of Marsa is most welcome. Marsa has been neglected for far too long.

The Planning Authority has been criticised in the past for its piecemeal reviews of the local plans. It is hoped that this exercise will be a holistic one. It is the whole of Marsa which should be addressed and not one tiny corner! The decay of Marsa as an urban centre needs to be addressed at the earliest opportunity. This will not be done through piecemeal local plan reviews but through a comprehensive planning exercise.

The proposed strategic vision, as directed by government, is however not a suitable one. Through the Planning Authority, government is proposing that the area subject of the consultation be transformed into a “prime tourism and leisure harbour destination”.

The primary question to be addressed is whether it is desirable for our economy to further increase its dependence on tourism. The answer to this basic question, in my view, is a clear no. It is thus not on to reserve more prime sites for tourism. Tourism has gobbled up too many prime sites. Too many land use planning policies have been compromised in the exclusive interest of the tourism industry.  

Tourism has also proven itself to be a very weak link in the economic chain. It has been brought down to its knees as a result of Covid19. It is still very weak and will take more time to recover. Understandably a significant part of its labour force has migrated to other sectors and is unwilling to return to work in the tourism sector.

Rather than more tourism we definitely need less of it.

Prior to Covid19 we had reached saturation levels in the tourism sector. The post-Covid19 impact period is a unique opportunity for tourism to be re-dimensioned in order to reduce its impacts on the community. Unfortunately, the Planning Authority is insensitive to all this: it plans to give us more of the same.  

The availability of the former power station site and its surroundings is definitely a unique opportunity which should not be squandered on the tourism industry.

The innermost part of the Grand Harbour has always been dedicated to the maritime sector for which this is a unique opportunity to re-organise, modernise and increase its contribution to the national economy while reducing its environmental impacts. Scaling down the ship-repairing facilities and moving them to outside the area earmarked for regeneration could shift this activity to close proximity of residential areas in localities which are close by. This should therefore be avoided.  Even though I doubt very much whether in practice it is that easy to shift these facilities.

The regeneration of the inner part of the Grand Harbour Area can be achieved without tying down the area to development which is tourism-linked. The consultation strategy itself identifies various other options and activities amongst which new business ventures which improve the overall well-being of the community.

The tourism industry itself, over two years ago, had sounded the alarm that the number of tourists arriving in Malta was too high: beyond that which the country can take sustainably. Research published at the same time had identified the first signs of turismofobia, a mixture of repudiation, mistrust and contempt for tourists and tourism. These are the first indications of social discontent with the pressures linked to tourism growth. They need to be addressed but are however being ignored.

There is obviously a need for less tourism, not more of it. Access to public investment has to be made available to other sectors.

The public consultation is in its initial stages, and it is still possible for the discussion to develop along different lines. The discussion required is one which addresses Marsa as a whole and which does not focus on just one tiny corner, even though it may be an important corner.

This is a unique opportunity for all stakeholders who can and should get involved to assist in the identification of a sustainable vision for the regeneration of Marsa as a whole: in the interests of all.

published on the Malta Independent on Sunday : 5 December 2021

Claiming back (and protecting) our coast

A continuous effort to commercialise the coast is under way. It has been going on for quite some time.

The proposed Marsaskala yacht marina is just one example. It is possibly the latest of many examples, not just in the political south, but throughout the Maltese islands. The Freeport Terminal, Manoel Island, Balluta Bay, the Birgu Waterfront and yacht marina, the Kalkara yacht marina, Valletta Waterfront are some of the most glaring examples which come to mind.

There is also the ongoing commercialisation of the public spaces adjacent to the coast, including pavements and open spaces.

Public land is continuously being transformed into private profits, many times for the chosen few. In practically all cases,the quality of life of residents is not factored in, until the eleventh hour. Whenever possible, it is avoided completely.

It has been around four years since parliament approved legislation in order to reinforce the protection of the coastline through the public domain legislation. Much was said pompously by many a Minister. Environmental NGOs have submitted a list of over twenty sites along the coast which qualify for protection. I am informed that eNGOs have even carried out extensive research on ownership issues related to these sites. It is indeed unfortunate that the Lands Authority and the Planning Authority have ground the whole process to an unacceptable halt. This applies even in those instances where it is proven beyond any doubt whatsoever that the land in question is public property.

Why approve such laws when there is no intention to implement them?

We are aware that one of the main areas through which climate change will impact islands, including the Maltese islands, is through sea level rise.  A number of low-lying islands in the Pacific Ocean are already in the process of disappearing below a rising sea level.  Robert Abela, Prime Minister, addressing the Glasgow Climate Change COP26 earlier this week emphasised this point.

A rise in sea level will have a substantial impact on the Maltese islands, depending on its extent. It will impact the coastal infrastructure: the maritime, tourism, as well as the water and electricity infrastructure are all linked to our coast. A sea level rise will play havoc with all this. It will even impact the residential areas which have been developed close to the coast.

No one is certain as to when, how and the extent of this happening. Primarily this is due to the fact the natural processes in play are not fully understood yet. It is also however possible that mitigation measures planned and in hand to reduce carbon emissions could be quite effective if taken up.

During UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change) meetings it is continuously emphasised that the increase in global mean temperature should not exceed 1.5 degree Celsius over the pre-industrial temperature. This is the result of extensive lobbying by island states and under-developed countries over the years. They have been successful in adjusting the objective from the previous 2 degree Celsius.  This is definitely a step in the right direction, but it is not enough. 

In Paris in 2015 this was already agreed upon. Yet it was all words, none of which was converted into action. At Glasgow we need some decisions which are implemented the soonest.

Taking definite action on climate change is required to protect our coast.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 7 November 2021