Ignoring residents and their local councils

strait street valletta 2

 

Government has published a consultation document dealing with the use of open public spaces by catering establishments, entitled Guidelines on Outdoor Catering Areas on Open Public Space : a holistic approach to creating an environment of comfort and safety.

This document was launched earlier this week at a press conference addressed by the Minister for Tourism Edward Zammit Lewis and the Parliamentary Secretary responsible for planning and simplification of administrative processes Michael Falzon.

The inter-Ministerial committee set up by government to draft the policy document was limited to representatives of the Ministry of the Interior, MEPA, Transport Malta, the Government Property Division, the Malta Tourism Authority and the Association of Hotels and Restaurants (MHRA). Representatives of the local councils were excluded from participating.

It seems that when the matter was being considered by Cabinet, the Minister for Local Councils Owen Bonnici was fast asleep as otherwise he would undoubtedly have drawn the attention of his colleagues that the Local Councils Act, in article 33, deems it a function of local councils “to advise and, where applicable, be consulted by, any authority empowered to take any decisions directly or indirectly affecting the Council and the residents it is responsible for”.

Surely the use of public open spaces by catering establishments is a matter which is of considerable interest to local councils as it affects both the councils and the residents they represent. Yet the government has a different opinion as representatives of local councils were not invited at the drawing board where the guidelines on the use of public open spaces by catering establishments were being drafted.

The guidelines introduce a one stop shop at MEPA, thereby eliminating the need to apply for around four other permits for the placing of tables and chairs in public open spaces. This would be a positive development if MEPA can take on board all the considerations which are normally an integral part of the four other application processes.

If the utilisation of public open spaces was limited to the squares in our towns and villages, I do not think that there would be any issue. There is sufficient space in such areas and using part of it for open air catering activities there would not be cause for concern.

However, problems will definitely arise in areas of mixed use, that is, areas where the ground floor is used commercially and the overlying areas are used as residences. This is a common occurrence in many of the localities where there is a high demand by the catering business for the utilisation of public open space. The guidelines, however, ignore the impacts which placing chairs and tables at street level could have on the residents in such areas, in particular those living in the floors immediately above ground level. Such impacts would primarily be the exposure of residents to secondary cigarette/tobacco smoke as well as noise and odours. The issue of noise will undoubtedly arise, in particular during siesta time, as well as late into the evenings while secondary smoke from cigarettes/tobacco as well as odours will be an ever present nuisance. Maybe if the local councils were not excluded from the inter-Ministerial Committee, these matters would have been taken into consideration.

In such instances it would be necessary to limit the placing of tables and chairs at such a distance from residences where impacts on residents from secondary smoke, noise and odours are insignificant: that is if there is sufficient space.

The guidelines establish that a passageway of 1.50 metres on pavements is to be reserved for pedestrians. In addition they establish that where a permit is requested to place chairs and tables outside third-party property, specific clearance in front of doors and windows is to be observed. Isn’t that thoughtful of the inter-Ministerial Committee? Instead of categorically excluding the placing of chairs and tables along the property of third parties it seeks to facilitate the creation of what would inevitably be a nuisance to the users of such a property. This, too, is the result of the lop-sided composition of the inter-Ministerial Committee.

Nor are parking spaces spared. The inter-Ministerial Committee makes provision in the proposed guidelines for the possibility that catering establishments can also make use of parking spaces for the placing of tables and chairs when other space is insufficient. The guidelines leave no stone unturned in ensuring that tables and chairs get priority, even though this is worded in terms that make it appear that it would be an exception.

Enforcement, as usual, will be another headache. We already have quite a number of cases in various localities where passageways are minimal or inexistent and pedestrians, excluded from walking along the pavement have to move along with the traffic, right in the middle of the road. At times this may prove quite difficult and dangerous, in particular for wheelchair users or in the case of parents with small children. Enforcement to date is practically inexistent and I do not think that matters will change much in this respect.

Unfortunately, MEPA is a repeat offender in ignoring the interests of the residential community when faced with all types of development. The guidelines on the use of public open space by catering establishments are thus more of the same.

While cars have taken over our roads, catering establishments will now be guided on how to take over our pavements and open spaces, parking included!

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday – 13 September 2015  

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A case of bad governance

The full process leading to the agreement whereby St Philip’s Hospital is leased to the Government with the option to purchase requires careful examination. Even after Monday’s parliamentary debate, the information is substantially under wraps with only small snippets having been made available to date. The little that is known however, already points towards bad governance.

The Government opted to start negotiations with the owner of St Philip’s Hospital late in 2008, that is four years ago. Commencing negotiations relative to St Philip’s Hospital signifies that alternative sites and options were being excluded: alternative sites were ignored, considered as not being suitable, or as being less suitable than the site under consideration.

The Minister for Health said in Parliament that it would require just under €40 million to rehabilitate St Luke’s Hospital. What the minister forgot to consider was that a basic rule for comparative statements is that, for the comparison to be of any significance, one has to compare like with like. You cannot compare what is required for a 1,000 bed hospital to justify the relative smallness of the sum required relative to a 75-bed or a 110-bed hospital.

The cost to rehabilitate St Luke’s is obviously substantially higher than anything related to St Philip’s. Such comparisons are deceptive. Moreover, parts of St Luke’s are no longer available as they are being used for other purposes.

The potential use of St Luke’s was discarded when negotiations started way back in 2008. If St Luke’s was then considered as suitable, the Rehabilitation Hospital would be up and running by now, saving millions of euros and lots of time. It could have been operational at least three years ago. As a result, it would have been possible for medical personnel at Mater Dei Hospital to deal more appropriately with patients because overcrowding there would have been substantially reduced three years ago, at least.

This is one of the issues which the Auditor General should consider when he examines the process that led to the Government’s decision. I understand that detailed reports are existent. It would be appropriate if these are immediately made available for the consideration of the Public Accounts Committee and the Auditor General.

It should also be considered whether the Government acted correctly when it opted to initiate direct negotiations with one hospital operator to the exclusion of other suppliers of potentially suitable sites. The fact that the Government is not legally bound to issue a call for tenders does not signify that it is good practice to start the process without such a call or, alternatively, with a request for the submission of expressions of interest. The Government, instead, inversed the process linking itself with a call for an expression of interest issued by the owner of St Philip’s!

The tendering procedure is a basic characteristic of public sector procurement so much that even local councils are expected to issue such a call when leasing or purchasing property. Why is it that the Finance Ministry insists on good practice at a local level but then opts for bad practice at a national level? The reasons brought forward by the Government to justify direct negotiations are equally applicable at a local level, yet the ministries of finance and local government justifiably insist on the tendering procedure.

In view of the above, Franco Debono (actively supported by Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando) is insisting that the agreement reached should be shelved until such time that the Auditor General and the Public Accounts Committee of the House of Representatives have examined the whole process.

In view of the seriousness of the matter, that is the possible overriding by Parliament of the Executive’s discretion, the honourable way for the Leader of the House was to deal with the motion submitted by Debono with urgency. It should take precedence over all the Government’s business as it strikes at the most basic of uses.

When documentation is submitted for the Auditor General’s scrutiny there is one particular scrap of paper that I will look out for. This is the advice dished out by the Malta Environment and Planning Authority indicating the possibility to consider an application for the increase in beds at St Philip’s to about 280.

A quick visit to the site of St Philip’s would remove all doubts as to the suitability of the site because it is clear that there is hardly sufficient parking space for the hospital’s current size. The only remote possibility for increasing the facilities at St Philip’s in my view is to redevelop it completely, in which case, costings made have to be calculated afresh. And I have serious doubts whether this can be done.

As I see it, there is no way in which St Philip’s can function as projected. Public funds invested in this project would be monies down the drain. Hence the need for the intervention of the Public Accounts Committee and the Auditor General before the deal is concluded.

 

published in The Times of Malta, Saturday 20th October 2012