Symbolic gestures do not compensate for planning failures

MFT.4 new cranes

Last Thursday, the MEPA Board finally decided to approve the Freeport Terminal’s application to install four cranes with 140-metre high jibs at the terminal. This decision was taken after the Board, in an anticipated about-turn, accepted a second declaration from Transport Malta as a recommendation for approval of the proposal.

In August, Transport Malta had pointed out that the installation of these new cranes was “not desirable” as, due to their height, they would “penetrate one of the established aeronautical protection surfaces by circa 18m”. However notwithstanding the conclusion that, for this reason, the Freeport’s proposal was not considered as undesirable, “given the importance of this facility to the economy”  Transport Malta gave its go-ahead to the Freeport’s proposal subject to a number of mitigation measures.

The Freeport facilities are too close to the residential area of Birżebbuġa and, over the years, MEPA has not given sufficient consideration to the impact that this facility has had – and is still having – on the quality of life of the residential community.

At no point during its consideration of the various planning applications submitted over the years has MEPA considered it necessary to consider the social impact of this economic activity. In fact, primarily as a result of the Freeport’s operations, most of the sport facilities in the area, introduced by the British services over the years, have disappeared. It is only recently that the extensive damage to the waterpolo pitch was made good,  through the reconstruction of a new waterpolo pitch. The activities of the Sailing Club, which  borders the terminal, have also been badly affected as a result of the increase in the number of ships making use of the terminal. The Birżebbuġa Sailing Club, ironically sponsored by the Freeport itself, is the only one of its kind in Malta’s political south.

Last Thursday, MEPA, despite opposition from the Freeport Terminal management, decided on compensating the Birżebbuġa community through the creation of an ad hoc fund to the amount of €955,000 to fund environmental improvement projects in the Birżebbuġa area. It is the second time in six years that MEPA has considered it necessary to take such a symbolic decision. The first time was in 2009, when a fund of €741,820 was created for the same purpose. That decision was, however, quashed by the Lawrence Gonzi-led Cabinet as a result of the planning appeal process, even though the Environment and Planning Review Tribunal  in an 11-page recommendation, explained why the original decision was to be confirmed.

The decision to create this latest ad hoc fund is symbolic in that it recognises the Freeport’s negative impact on the local community. It will not, however, have any substantial effect. It is just a symbolic recognition of the fact that the contribution of the Freeport Terminal to Malta’s economic growth is being achieved at the expense of the quality of life of Birżebbuġa residents.

It  is known that a number of residential properties in the area closest to the terminal have been vacant for a considerable time, as the noise generated through its operation is at times unbearable, irrespective of the time of day.

This is certainly a major failure of land-use planning in Malta, a failure that will be compounded in the coming months when other major planning decisions –  such as the gas storage facilities for the Delimara Power Station just across the bay from the Freeport Terminal – come into operation.

The transformation of Marsaxlokk Bay into an industrial port is now practically complete and, gradually, a substantial number of residents will be squeezed out.  It is the same process as that experienced by the Three Cities at Cottonera as a result of the activities of Malta Drydocks. The results can be seen by all.  Soon, the shedding of crocodile tears will commence and then the rehabilitation of Marsaxlokk Bay may possibly be planned.

originally published in The Malta Independent on Sunday – 13 December 2015

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The Wied il-Buni Buffer Zone

When the current parliamentary session was inaugurated in May 2008 the then President of the Republic read the government’s programme listing those of its political pledges it felt safe to announce.

The President had informed Parliament that: “The government’s plans and actions are to be underpinned by the notion of sustainable development of the economy, of society and of the environment. When making decisions today, serious consideration will be given to the generations of tomorrow.”

He further emphasised that “Sustainable development has three main dimensions: economic, social and environmental. Our challenge is to ensure continuous economic development, promoted by education, social development, with particular attention to environmental protection. When we evaluate our activities in view of these three interrelated dimensions, we would be placing every person at the heart of the government’s actions”.

Now consider this policy direction and apply it to the Freeport at Birżebbuġa.

Had the Freeport been designed today it would have a much smaller footprint. When the Freeport was designed in the 1980s such large-scale projects were not subject to any land use planning control. Nor were any environmental criteria relative to the impacts on the Birżebbuġa community given any weight. (Some would justifiably argue that not much has changed since.)

When, in the early 1990s, the then Planning Authority was faced with a Freeport already in operation (even though it was still in its initial stages) it sought to contain its spread through the policies which it approved.

One important policy contained in the Marsaxlokk Bay Local Plan creates a buffer zone between the Freeport and Birżebbuġa. In fact, Marsaxlokk Bay Local Plan policy MB 28 states: “Any use allocated to the area of land at Wied il-Buni should act as a buffer to shield the leisure activity along the seafront from the industry of the Freeport and, in any case, must not cause inconvenience to nearby residents due to noise, fumes, vibrations and/or hours of work. The preferred use is public open space.”

Policy could not be any clearer, yet, notwithstanding this, the Malta Environment and Planning Authority board last month approved an extension to the Freeport Terminal using part of this buffer zone. As a result, the Freeport’s increased activity in the future is possible but the welfare of the community was thrown overboard by a Mepa board which felt it could ignore the regulator’s own policies. They did not only ignore the above local plan policy but, in addition, they also ignored the social and environmental impacts of the terminal extension focusing only on perceived economic benefits. In so doing, they also threw overboard the government’s declarations in favour of sustainable development and future generations.

In an explanatory note immediately after the above-quoted policy, the Marsaxlokk Bay Local Plan further explains as follows: “The site referred to (the buffer zone) is immediately adjacent to Freeport Terminal between Triq San Patrizju and the shore.

“The site is currently used partly as a sailing club and the rest as a dump-yard. It is close to houses along Triq San Patrizju and, if not carefully controlled, its eventual use could have a detrimental impact on local residents.

“It also presents an opportunity to assist in reducing the effects of the industrial activity of the Freeport.”

This was approved and published by the then Planning Authority in May 1995.

An increased environmental sensitivity of the community since 1995 should have led Mepa to observe its own rules. In fact, the first decision taken relative to the Freeport Terminal extension was to refuse it. This the Mepa board did on February 26, 2009. However, after it was requested to reconsider this refusal, the Mepa board overturned its original decision on January 21, 2010. There were no changes to the project between the two dates.

There was only one occurrence which could be of relevance: the elections of the Maltese members of the European Parliament in June 2009. Whether this had any bearing on the decision of the individual Mepa board members is difficult to say, as none gave any indication. It is, however, a fact that some Mepa board members had second thoughts and changed the manner in which they voted. Being independent, they are obviously entitled to change their mind. One wonders, however, why none considered it ethical to give a reasonable explanation. Those who will have to bear the brunt of their decision are entitled to such an explanation.

The decision is now being contested in the Planning Appeals Board by the local NGO, Birżebbuġa Environmental Action Group.

Until such time as a definite decision is taken, it may be opportune to ponder as to why it is possible that this country can have clear and specific policies but then cannot identify competent boards capable of ensuring that they are applied as originally intended.

published in The Times today,July 24, 2010

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On this blog you can also see the following posts on the same subject :

17th July 2010 : Wara l-Bieb.

12th June 2010 : Past Mistakes ……. Present Day Decisions.

1st February 2010 : Malta Freeport : Impacts on Residents should be dealt with effectively.

21st March 2009 : The Freeport : Will MEPA backtrack ?

26th February 2009 : Kisba Importanti wara suġġeriment ta’ AD – MEPA accepts AD proposal.

5th March 2008 : Birżebbuġa u l-Port Ħieles

Wara l-Bieb

F’pajjiż żgħir fid-daqs bħal tagħna kull żvilupp li jsir ikollu effett fuq xi ħaġa oħra.

Il-bieraħ f’Birżebbuġa indirizzajt konferenza tal-aħbarijiet dwar l-estensjoni tal-Port Ħieles u kif din teffettwa lir-residenti. Il-Kunsill Lokali ta’ Birżebbuġa u l-NGO ambjentali tal-lokal il-Birżebbuġa Environmental Action Group f’isem ir-residenti qed jopponu l-estensjoni tal-Port Ħieles minħabba li din teffettwa ħażin lir-residenti.

Hemm limitu għal dak li hu ġustifikabbli li nissaportu. B’dan l-iskop il-Pjan Lokali għall-Bajja ta’ Marsaxlokk approvat fl-1995 stabilixxa dan il-limitu billi identifika l-area ta’ Wied il-Buni bħala żona li l-Port Ħieles ma kellux jaqbiżha. Hi fil-fatt definita bħala buffer zone.

Il-permess għall-estensjoni tal-Port Ħieles li l-MEPA approvat reċentement dan tinjorah.

Hawn diversi li jitkellmu b’passjoni mingħajr ma jkunu jafu l-fatti. Huwa faċli li tgħid li huwa neċessarju li l-Port Ħieles jespandi fl-interess tat-tkabbir tal-ġid ekonomiku imma min jgħid hekk ikun qed iħares biss lejn parti żgħira ħafna mill-istorja. Għax hemm bżonn ukoll li nħarsu lejn affajiet oħra : kif din l-estensjoni teffettwa l-ħajja tan-nies, u kif din teqred ukoll facilitajiet sportivi tal-baħar (sailing club) li jgawdu mhux biss ir-residenti ta’ Birżebbuġa imma ukoll residenti min-nofsinnhar tal-pajjiż li għalihom Birżebbuġa huwa post ta’ villeġġatura.       

Hemm ukoll l-impatti ambjentali li akkumulaw tul is-snin mill-attivita’ industrijali fil-Port ta’ Marsaxlokk. Dawn huma sostanzjali. Jagħmel sens ħafna illi qabel ma biss nikkunsidraw estenzjoni tal-Port Ħieles nifhmu iktar l-impatti ambjentali akkumulati li per eżempju qerdu l-ħajja fil-bajja u nassiguraw li dawn ikunu indirizzati.

Il-Kunsill ta’ Birżebbuġa, il-Birżebbuġa Environmental Action Group u l-Port Ħieles ilhom ix-xhur jiltaqgħu mal-MEPA biex flimkien insibu l-aħjar mod kif dawn l-impatti li akkumulaw tul is-snin ikunu indirizzati u possibilment jonqsu għall-ġid ta’ kulħadd.

Dan hu l-mod kif l-affarijiet isiru bis-serjeta’. Għalhekk nitkellmu dwar l-iżvilupp sostenibbli. Għax l-iżvilupp biex jagħmel sens ma jridx inissel biss titjib ekonomiku, iżda dan irid jagħmlu mingħajr ħsara : la ħsara ambjentali u l-anqas ħsara soċjali.  

Il-ħsara ħadd ma jridha wara biebu.

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Ara ukoll fuq dan il-blog :

12 ta’ Gunju 2010 : Past Mistakes ……. Present Day Decisions.

1 ta’ Frar 2010 : Malta Freeport : Impacts on Residents should be dealt with effectively.

21 ta’ Marzu 2009 : The Freeport : Will MEPA backtrack ?

26 ta’ Frar 2009 : Kisba Importanti wara suġġeriment ta’ AD – MEPA accepts AD proposal.

5 ta’ Marzu 2008 : Birżebbuġa u l-Port Ħieles.