Political calculation or environmental principle?

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Joseph Muscat’s declaration that the Freeport Terminal will not be permitted to expand in Birżebbuġa’s direction due to its impacts on the residential community will inevitably have an effect on the Planning Authority. Viewed in the context of the recent Planning Authority decision not to approve the proposed Ħondoq ir-Rummien development, a pattern seems to be developing.

Given the fact that these two decisions are closely associated with localities that politically support the Labour Party it is still not clear whether this newly discovered sensitivity to restrict development which negatively impacts residential communities is based on political calculation or on environmental principle. This consideration is inevitable, in particular due to the report in this newspaper on 22 June that the Prime Minister had stated, in a discussion with environmental NGO Flimkien għall-Ambjent Aħjar, that he does not care about impact assessments, as residents get used to everything. As far as I am aware, the Office of the Prime Minister never corrected this report.

The Freeport Terminal debate clearly indicates that Birżebbuġa residents are determined to deliver a different message: they have had enough. During the last seven years there has been an ongoing tug-of-war between Birżebbuġa Local Council, MEPA and the Freeport Terminal Management. This has led to a number of improvements, the most important of which was the setting up of a tripartite Environmental Monitoring Committee that has served to build some bridges and to explore solutions to existing problems caused by the operation of the Freeport Terminal.

There was a time, around two years ago, when pressure was put on Birżebbuġa Local Council to drop its objections to specific operations. I distinctly remember representatives from the oil-rig repair industry  trying to convince the Council of the “benefits” that an oil-rig industry based at the Freeport Terminal could generate.

When these representatives realised that no one was convinced, an amendment to the environmental permit was forced through the then MEPA Board. To their credit, only three of the then board members understood the real issues and voted against the proposal: the two MPs (Joe Sammut and Ryan Callus) and the environmental NGO representative Alex Vella of the Ramblers Association.

The amended environmental permit would have permitted minor repairs to ships and oil-rigs berthed at the Freeport Terminal. However, after the MEPA Board meeting all hell broke loose, leading Prime Minister Joseph Muscat to disassociate himself from its decision and publicly align himself with the minority on the board opposing the changes. He then stated that he was in agreement with “his representative”, Labour MP Joe Sammut.

While the Freeport Terminal, faced with the reaction of residents, eventually relinquished the newly-acquired permit, the internal debate within the Labour Party continued, leading to the recent statement by Joseph Muscat that he is not in agreement with an expansion of the Freeport Terminal operations that would have a negative impact on the Birżebbuġa community.

Irrespective of whether it is a matter of principle or a political calculation which has led the Prime Minister to make such a statement, I submit that this is still a significant turning point that has been achieved as a direct result of Birżebbuġa Local Council’s persistent lobbying. It contrasts with the position taken by the Leader of the Opposition, who looks forward to an increase in the operations of the Freeport Terminal, without batting an eyelid over the resulting, continuously increasing, impact on the residential community.

The Prime Minister’s statement, while being a positive first step, is certainly not enough. It needs to be translated into policy as an integral part of the revised Local Plans currently under consideration. It is also important that the Prime Minister’s newly identified sensitivities are exported to other areas in Malta and Gozo. It is essential that, in a small country such as ours, third party rights opposing “development” are reinforced.

The issue at stake is far larger than Birżebbbuġa or the Freeport Terminal. It is a tug-of-war between those supporting “development” at all costs and our residential communities. The government must, through planning policy, be supportive of all our residential communities without exception.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday – 31st July 2016

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Past mistakes, present-day decisions

by Carmel Cacopardo

published on Saturday June 12, 2010

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“Our environment is too small to afford to suffer any more mistakes than we have already committed in the past, sometimes even in the name of tourism and progress.” This was not stated by AD chairman Michael Briguglio but by Parliamentary Secretary Mario de Marco with reference to the pending Ħondoq ir-Rummien Mepa application (The Sunday Times, May 30).

In considering large projects for development permission, the Malta Environment and Planning Authority is not considering environmental and social impacts adequately, opting instead to focus on perceived short-term economic gains. Unfortunately, the paths leading to decisions are guided by experts who should know better.

Some time ago, Mepa approved the extension of the Malta Freeport. In the process, it ignored that such an extension gobbled up the existing buffer zone established way back in 1995. The end result will be a Freeport operating area that is much closer to the Birżebbuġa residential area. The Freeport as it is operating already severely impacts the daily lives of the Birżebbuġa residents. Making things worse will only raise tensions and the loss of at least part of the accumulated social capital of the locality. No amount of mitigation will ever restore what is being lost with Mepa’s blessings.

In deciding on the matter, Mepa has been misguided by an EIA process, which, being financed by the developer, had an interest to shift attention on the over-emphasised perceived economic gains, simultaneously downplaying social and environmental impacts.

The Ħondoq ir-Rummien project seems to be the next issue which further highlights the developing tensions between the residential community and those interested in making a fast buck. The proposal, which involves substantial rock excavation, aims to develop a 170-room hotel, 25 villas, 60 self-catering apartments, 200 residences, parking space and a 150-berth yacht marina.

This proposed development will squeeze out the current uses at Ħondoq ir-Rummien. It will conflict with the public recreational uses the Gozitans and Maltese alike make of the area.

Jeremy Boissevain, in a report commissioned by the Qala local council, has highlighted that the massive scale of the project will practically double the Qala population. The local community has not accepted the proposed intrusion into their lives, which the proposed project suggests. As evidenced by the local referendum held in Qala some years back, the community does not consider the economic aspect on its own. Rather, it should be weighed and compared to the environmental and social impacts it will necessarily generate.

The social and environmental externalities of the project are being repeatedly downplayed by those who want to cash in on the economic benefits such a project will undoubtedly generate for the few. After having cashed in the benefits of property speculation aimed at a 70 per cent foreigner occupancy target, they will then leave the community to carry the burdens and pay the costs, deprived of basic facilities which, to date, have been much used by the public.

Mepa has yet to decide on this project and there is no way of knowing the direction such a decision would take. It is however logical to assume that the line of reasoning the current Mepa board has applied in other cases is of relevance. Hence, the validity of Dr de Marco’s warning on the need to ensure that past mistakes are not repeated, not even on behalf of  “tourism and progress”.

The government is aware that, to date, it has given conflicting signals. Very late in the day, it is realising that it cannot run with the proverbial hares while simultaneously hunting with the hounds. The current state of affairs is the direct result of the ambivalent attitude to environmental issues by politicians from the major parties which have developed the skill of quickly switching mode depending on their audience.

The causes are various.

AD is on record as pointing to two immediate solutions: firstly regulating the funding of political parties and, secondly, for the government to share with the community the process of appointing the Mepa decision-makers, by having the appointees subjected to a public hearing prior to their being appointed.

The major political parties are hostage to the construction industry. This is also evident by the reluctance of Parliament to legislate on party political funding. The parliamentary select committee appointed two years ago has, to date, been ineffective in this respect. Likewise, the Mepa reform process will result in a wasted opportunity, as while it will tinker with a number of issues, it will retain the most essential matters requiring reform untouched.

It is one thing to speak on past mistakes and quite another to move up the learning curve. Past mistakes will most probably be reflected in present-day decisions. At least for the time being.

I hope that I will be proven wrong.

original at Times of Malta website

Ta’ Ċenċ Salvat !

 

Il-MEPA estendiet il-protezzjoni ta’ Ta’ Ċenċ. Dan hu pass tajjeb il-quddiem fil-ħarsien ambjentali li għandu ħtieġa tiegħu pajjiżna.

Imma jkun floku li niftakru li dan sar wara snin ta’ protesti u oġġezzjonijiet għall-iżvilupp propost fl-inħawi. Ġew dedikati mijiet ta’ siegħat f’laqgħat u protesti minn bosta, fosthom Alternattiva Demokratika u l-parti l-kbira tal-NGOs. Fl-aħħar, il-Gvern permezz tal-MEPA baxxa rasu. Għal snin sħaħ iżda irresista dan il-pass.

Tafu x’kienet id-differenza ?

Is-sħubija ta’ Malta fl-Unjoni Ewropea għamlet id-differenza kollha : huwa biss bħala riżultat tal-isħubija ta’ Malta fl-EU li l-Gvern permezz tal-MEPA ġie f’sessieh.

Kien hemm diversi attentati sa l-aħħar mumenti biex ikun hemm resistenza istituzzjonali  għal dan il-pass. Fosthom iż-żjara (rappurtata fil-gazzetti) mill-iżviluppatur akkumpanjat (skond il-gazzetti) minn uffiċjali pubbliċi go Brussel. Kien hemm ukoll xi laqgħat li saru bil-kwiet biex titrattab l-opposizzjoni għall-proposti ta’ żvilupp ta’ Ta’ Ċenċ.

Imma fortunatament is-sħubija fl-EU bdiet tagħti l-frott għall-ħarsien tal-ambjent. Li kieku 4 snin ilu Malta ma ssieħbitx fl-Unjoni Ewropea jien konvint li Ta’ Ċenċ diġa ilu kkundannat għall-kostruzzjoni.

Issa wara Ta’ Ċenċ imiss Ħondoq ir-Rummien li ukoll jeħtieġ li jkun imħares minn ħalq l-ispekulaturi.

Nistennew u naraw.  

Echo-Gozo : a race to be green

published on August 23, 2008

by Carmel Cacopardo

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sunrise at Marsalforn

 

Since early 2007, when a PN commissioned survey indicated that 31 per cent of the electorate identified itself with tiny AD on environmental issues (compared with 32 per cent for the PN and 21 per cent for the MLP) it has been a race against time for the PN trying to be green. Trying to make up for lost time it took many a leaf out of the AD book: one being that relative to eco-Gozo.

For Gozo to achieve the status of an ecological island it needs to embark on the sustainable development path. This will be achieved only by matching walk to talk.

Last month the Minister for Gozo launched a public consultation intended to give flesh to the government’s eco-Gozo proposal. The minister is maybe unaware that the blue plan for eco-Gozo has already been drawn up by the stakeholders and approved by Cabinet after extensive consultation! It is titled “A Sustainable Development Strategy for the Maltese Islands”. On reading through it she will find clear directions which she should follow.

The concept of an ecological island is a vision that Gozo can be alive and kicking but not antagonistic to its ecology and life support systems. It must accept that humankind is part of an ecological system to which it is ethically bound to acquiesce. It does not mean returning to the Ġgantija era but rather that the manner the economy and social structures are organised and developed must be compatible with ecology.

The waste transfer station may be an important element in attaining this vision but it must be a holistic vision. Unfortunately this has not yet started coalescing.

Eco-Gozo could set a zero-waste target: nothing is thrown away but everything is reused or recycled. But waste is not just the solids which end up in Tal-Kus for transfer to the mainland, but also includes the liquids that transit through San Blas on their way to the waste water recycling plant and eventual discharge into the sea. An eco-Gozo would reuse all of its treated water, ensuring that its treatment is compatible with its intended use.

An eco-Gozo would also ensure that it errs on the side of caution in dealing with resources. Even at this late hour it can halt the Church in Gozo from developing a new cemetery which is playing havoc with the livelihood of Għajn Qasab farmers at Nadur. An eco-Gozo would undoubtedly realise that place names containing the semitic word “Għajn” (meaning spring) indicate a source of water flowing naturally and worthy of protection.

An eco-Gozo would strive to generate as much as is possible of its energy needs through renewable sources. This is achievable through the use of wind energy, supplemented by solar energy and energy generated through waste, including animal waste. But most of all it can be saved through energy efficiency measures in homes and other buildings.

An ecological island would ban the use of pesticides and lead its agriculture along the organic path. Its agricultural products would be healthier to consume and its water table would be less polluted. Farmers need the assistance of agricultural pharmacists to gradually decrease the pesticides in use until they can do without them altogether.

An ecological island would ensure that the ecological sites which form part of the EU Natura 2000, like Il-Qortin il-Kbir at Nadur, and those which are of great importance to the island, like Ta’ Ċenċ, are properly protected, managed and monitored. It would also ensure that declarations already made favouring the rape of Ħondoq ir-Rummien are withdrawn.

An eco-Gozo through efficient public transport would provide a reliable alternative to private cars, thereby encouraging their reduction in use. As a result it would also encourage the use of bicycles, which are surely suitable to cover the short distances between the various villages in Gozo. It would also realise that the construction industry must apply the brakes immediately. Gozo holds the national record on vacant properties: 47.66% of properties in Gozo were vacant in 2005 (9,762 out of 20,481 properties). An eco-Gozo faced with this fact would undoubtedly insist that the community can satisfy its residential needs from existing housing stock.

It takes much more than rhetoric to transform an echo to the real thing! It requires commitment and consistency. One cannot flirt with environmentalists while being consistently on the side of developers. Running with the hares does not make it possible to hunt with the hounds! In crystal clear language, a political party which seeks the support of opposing lobbies is not credible because it transmits the message of opportunism.

Throwing money at problems does not solve them. But consistency will, through the weeding out of contradictory stances and the adoption of a holistic approach. Green credentials of political parties are the result of a moral conviction, not of political convenience.

Demokrazija fl-Ippjanar

gozo-qala-hondoq-ir-rummien2.jpgHondoq ir-Rummien

Fil-Manifest ghall-Koalizzjoni l-AD qed tipproponi li progetti li dwarhom isir EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment) ikunu soggetti ghal referendum lokali.

Dan ikun jista’ jissejjah mir-residenti (10%) jew mill-Kunsill Lokali taghhom. Fejn progett ikun f’iktar minn lokalita’ wahda ikunu r-residenti w il-Kunsilli Lokali tal-lokalitajiet kollha direttament effettwati li jkunu jistghu jsejhu r-referendum lokali.

Id-decizjoni tar-referendum lokali jkun jorbot.

Dan ifisser illi wara li l-MEPA tigbor l-informazzjoni kollha u tassigura li l-process tekniku tal-pjanti u l-istudji jkun konkluz, tpoggi l-proposta ghall-konsiderazzjoni tal-pubbliku.

Jekk jintalab referedum fiz-zmien li jkun stabilit dan isir a spejjes tal-izviluppatur. Jekk il-progett ikun wiehed tal-Gvern ikun il-Gvern li jhallas.

Id-decizjoni tar-residenti tkun torbot.

Dan ikun ifisser li f’kaz bhal, per ezempju dak ta’ Hondoq ir-Rummien fil-Qala Ghawdex, fejn il-Kunsill Lokali organizza referendum li fih ir-residenti tal-Qala qalu le, il-progett propost ma jsirx.

L-istess ghandu jsir fil-kaz tal-Yacht Marina proposta f’Marsaskala. Hu inutli f’dan l-istadju li noqghodu nghidu favur jew kontra ghax dak li hu propost ghadu m’hux maghruf. Huwa wara li jkun maghrufa u li jsiru l-istudji necessarji li jkunu accessibli ghall-pubbliku li nkunu nistghu nikkummentaw.

B’hekk lehnek jinstema. Tkun inti li tiddeciedi. Dritt li dawk li joqghdu hdejn Pender Place San Giljan, jew hdejn il-Mistra Village fix-Xemxija San Pawl il-Bahar ma kellhomx.