Rent reform is long overdue

Over the years, successive governments have refrained from carrying out essential far-reaching changes to rent legislation.

The emergency which justified the original restrictive legislation was instead made more restrictive over the years. Court decisions from Valletta to Strasbourg denouncing the current state of play have been piling up. The rent reforms of 1995 and 2008 cannot be discarded, however they were not followed up. They were appropriate small first steps but too much time elapsed with no adequate follow-up action. Successive governments have been reluctant to disturb a hornet’s nest hoping that somehow time will solve the matter.

It is within this context that Government’s proposal to carry out a root and branch reform of the 9,700 remaining pre-1995 tenancies is thus a responsible and courageous political move. Through it government will be shouldering the accumulated shortcomings of all its predecessors, red and blue, which have generally ignored the matter over the years. The Greens in Malta have over the years actively campaigned on this specific issue: justice for the landlords must be carried out together with adequate protection of vulnerable tenants.

At the time of writing the statements made by Prime Minister Robert Abela and Social Accommodation Minister Roderick Galdes have not been followed up with the publication of the specific legal texts which will implement the policy declarations made.

The proposals as described so far, are, in my view acceptable in principle. It is however expected that when the detailed legislative proposals are published, these are accompanied by studies carried out, including costings. An essential healthy public debate needs to be adequately buttressed by well-researched background information.

The proposal as spelled out by Abela and Galdes is based on two fundamental points. It seeks to tread the difficult path of protecting both tenants and landlords.

Tenant protection will be achieved through ensuring that vulnerable tenants will at all times have access to a home, be it their current one or, in some cases, possible alternatives provided through access to social accommodation. This is essentially a transitory provision applicable to the identified 9,700 pre-1995 tenancies and is undoubtedly a restrictive condition on landlords. It is however of central importance. It is to be counterbalanced by a mechanism which determines a more reasonable determination of rental income which will be coughed up by the state in part or in whole depending on the vulnerability of the tenant. It is also a mechanism which over the past years has generally been accepted by the Courts as constituting a fair and reasonable rental income.

Of fundamental importance in the proposal as communicated so far is the manner of determination of the payable rent. This will not be left completely to the whims of market forces as it will be capped at 2 per cent of the property’s value. This signifies that, hopefully, some lessons have been learnt from the fallout resulting from the complete liberalisation of the post-1995 rental market.   

The proposal will be addressing an accumulated social problem with a substantial financial outlay consisting of millions of euros annually.

So far, the rent payable in respect of pre-1995 tenancies have been subsidised by the landlords who, in a number of cases are themselves in need of help! It is appropriate that this support is shouldered by the whole community, through the state, who now steps forward to shoulder the problem in the spirit of national solidarity.

So far most have acknowledged that pre-1995 tenancies are a tough challenge. What matters, now, is that we face this challenge head-on. It cannot be postponed any further.

published on The Malta Independent on Sunday: 7 March 2021

Lingering doubts on return to normal

The more Robert Abela brags that “the institutions are working” the longer doubts linger on. In a situation of normalcy, which we have a right to, there is no room for a Prime Minister addressing a press conference as that of last Tuesday (with a repeat on Thursday morning), on the police investigations into an assassination.

The Commissioner of Police addressed the press twenty-four hours later, on Wednesday. Commissioner Angelo Gafà was right to do so even if he could not give specific and detailed replies to avoid undermining the investigation at such a critical juncture. We expect the Commissioner of Police to inform us as to what is going on under his watch.

Angelo Gafà’s predecessor could not utter a coherent sentence in his press conferences. He left the running of the show to his deputy, known to the assassination prime suspect as Uncle Silvio.

Robert Abela and his predecessor have been breathing down the neck of the Police Force for far too long for them to realise that this is not normal behaviour in a democratic state. During his Tuesday Press Conference Robert Abela made a statement that could have indicated that he was being briefed on the criminal investigation by the Police. In fact, he stated that no politician, current or former, is in any way associated with the assassination investigation of Daphne Caruana Galizia.  This was clearly rebutted by the Police Commissioner on the morrow in his answers to the press when replying to a similar question. He stated that to date no leads to politicians, past and present have been identified. However, he further emphasised that he does not brief the Prime Minister on investigations.

This is the real news from the Police Commissioner conference. Commissioner Gafà is getting one clear message across: the police does not brief the Prime Minister on ongoing investigations! This is a complete U-turn from past police behaviour. We have learnt from detailed testimony in the assassination criminal case that police officials used to brief former premier Joseph Muscat who would generally be accompanied by his Chief of Staff Keith Schembri. Melvin Theuma, the assassination middleman has testified time and again that he was aware of various important aspects of the investigation from his paymaster Yorgen Fenech, Keith Schembri’s friend.

The police, maybe, have learnt the lesson that they have been undermined too many a time by the tenant at Castille Place. In this respect Angelo Gafà’s statement is a much-needed breath of fresh air, a welcome step on the road to normalcy. It is however not enough. Even the tenant at Castille Place must play his part: in such circumstances he should realise once and for all that shutting up is the only way forward.

The assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia did not happen out of the blue but against a background of institutionalised and industrial scale corruption. The police have made progress on the assassination itself. Instead of trying to take credit for the latest developments in the Caruana Galizia case, it is now up to the Prime Minister to deal with the background that led to the assassination. Ignoring that background and its illicit fruits means endorsing it.

The democratic institutions can function if we let them. If the Prime Minister halts his prima donna behaviour it will definitely help a lot. Until such time there are lingering doubts as to whether a return to normal is on the cards yet.

published on The Malta Independent on Sunday : 28 February 2021

Lejn in-normalità

F’pajjiż demokratiku hu normali li l-istituzzjonijiet jaħdmu. Mhux dejjem jaħdmu tajjeb, imma jaħdmu u huma soġġetti għal regolaturi u kontrolli oħra biex meta jiżbaljaw ikunu kkoreġuti.

L-eċitament tal-Prim Ministru l-bieraħ biex jemfasizza l-prova li l-istituzzjonijiet “qed jaħdmu” huwa propja konferma li għad ma wasalniex! Ma hemmx bżonn konferenza stampa biex tkun imħabbra l-wasla tan-normalità. In-normalità hi dak li nistennew u li għandna dritt għalih bla daqq ta’ trombi.

Dritt ta’ aċċess għax-xemx

Id-dritt li jkollna aċċess għax-xemx reġa’ għal darba oħra qed jissemma b’insistenza. Dawk fostna li huma konxji li l-użu tax-xemx għall-ħtiġijiet tagħna jagħmel kemm sens ambjentali kif ukoll sens ekonomiku qiegħed dejjem jiżdied. Sfortunatament huma ostakolati mill-politika dwar l-użu tal-art li hi interessata biss biex taqdi lir-rebgħa li, jippruvaw jgħidulna li hi żvilupp.

Li nagħmlu użu mill-enerġija li tiġġenera x-xemx jiddependi minn dak li jkun hemm jostakola l-wasla tar-raġġi tax-xemx meta jkollna ħtieġa tagħhom! Meta l-parti l-kbira tal-pjani lokali kienu approvati fis-sajf tal-2006, kien żdied bil-kbir l-għoli tal-bini permissibli f’diversi lokalitajiet. F’xi każi l-ammont ta’ sulari li jistgħu jinbnew żdiedu minn 2 għal 5, inkluż penthouse. Is-sitwazzjoni hi agħar fejn jista’ jkun hemm garaxxijiet li jkunu parzjalment taħt il-livell tal-triq (semi-basement). Din il-bidla f’dak li jista’ jinbena effettwat ħafna żoni fejn kien hemm bini b’żewġ sulari.

L-impatt ta’ din il-bidla fl-għoli permissibli tal-bini qiegħed jiżdied biż-żmien għax issa qed isir żvilupp mill-ġdid ta’ bosta propjetajiet li ilhom ftit ta’ żmien li nbnew. Dan qed joħloq ħafna dellijiet fuq bosta djar residenzjali fl-ibliet u l-irħula tagħna. Bħala riżultat ta’ dan il-pannelli fotovoltajċi u l-istallazzjonijiet li jsaħħnu l-ilma bix-xemx (solar water heaters) stallati fuq il-bjut ta’ bosta residenzi issa qegħdin fid-dell għall-ħin twil u ġew ma jiswew xejn. Dawn huma investimenti li għamlu ħafna familji Maltin li ġew issagrifikati fuq l-altar tar-rebgħa tal-hekk imsejjaħ żvilupp. Sussidji użati bħala għajnuna biex niġġeneraw l-enerġija mix-xemx, inkluż dawk li oriġinaw minn fondi Ewropej, f’numru mhux żgħir ta’ każi spiċċaw moħlija.

Dan kollu hu riżultat ta’ politika dwar l-ippjanar tal-użu tal-art bla viżjoni fit-tul. Politika li falliet biex tqis u tindirizza impatti ovvji. B’mod speċifiku hi riżultat li teżamina l-proposta dwar l-għoli permissibli tal-bini fid-dawl tal-proċeduri stabiliti mid-direttiva tal-Unjoni Ewropea dwar l-istima ta’ l-effetti ta’ ċerti pjanijiet u programmi fuq l-ambjent (Strategic Environment Assessment Directive). Din hi direttiva li tfittex li teżamina politika (policy), pjani u programmi biex ikun stabilit u eżaminat l-impatt ambjentali tagħhom.

Dawk minnha li huma familjari ma kif taħdem u ħadmet l-Awtorità tal-Ippjanar jafu li l-Pjani Lokali ġew approvati bl-għaġġla fis-sajf tal-2006. Dan sar l-għaliex iktar dewmien kien ikun ifisser illi dawn il-pjani kienu jkun soġġetti għal eżami dwar l-impatti ambjentali tagħhom skond kif tipprovdi d-direttiva tal-Unjoni Ewropea dwar l-istima ta’ l-effetti ta’ ċerti pjanijiet u programmi fuq l-ambjent (Strategic Environment Assessment Directive). Inevitabilment kien jirriżulta minn dan l-eżami li ż-żieda fil-għoli tal-bini li seta jingħata l-permess kien ser ikollu impatt negattiv fuq il-ġenerazzjoni tal-elettriku mix-xemx, kif fil-fatt qed jiġri llum! Dan l-impatt kien ikollu jkun indirizzat u l-għoli tal-bini kien ikollu jonqos.

Kellna parti mill-Gvern taħdem favur il-ħtieġa li nagħmlu użu mix-xemx biex niġġeneraw enerġija nadifa. Imma kellna parti oħra mill-Gvern li kienet ostaġġ tal-lobby tal-iżviluppaturi li riedu iktar spazju fejn jistgħu jiżviluppaw. Il-bqija nafu x’ġara. Dak l-ispazju issa qed jiġi żviluppat u bħala riżultat spiċċajna bil-pannelli fid-dell fuq il-bjut!

Iktar kmieni din il-ġimgħa, fil-Parlament, Miriam Dalli, Ministru għall-Enerġija, l-Intrapriża u l-Iżvilupp Sostenibbli fi tweġiba għal mistoqsija parlamentari ta’ Ryan Callus kelliemi tal-Opposizzjoni dwar l-Enerġija qalet li l-Gvern għaddej b’konsultazzjonijiet interni dwar dan kollu.

Tant ilna niddiskutu dan kollu li mhux nifhem x’għandha f’moħħha l-Onorevoli Ministru. Fil-fatt ftit hemm possibilitajiet x’jiġu kkunsidrati.

L-iktar possibilità ovvja hi li fejn hu possibli jitreġġa’ lura l-għoli permissibli tal-bini għal dak li kien fl-2006. Dan imma, hu diffiċli biex isir, u kieku kellu jsir immedjatament tasal talba għal kumpens ta’ miljuni ta’ euro.

Hu possibli li jkunu introdotti drittijiet dwar l-aċċess għax-xemx f’bini ġdid. Dan għandu jsir immedjatament. Hu possiblili li jkunu emendati r-regoli tal-ippjanar b’mod li jkun assigurat illi fil-bini ġdid, b’mod partikolari fil-bini ta’ flats, ikun possibli li minn fuq il-bjut tagħhom tkun ġġenerata l-enerġija mix-xemx. Dan għandu jkun biżżejjed u jagħmel tajjeb għall-konsum tal-elettriku fil-blokk tal-flats kollu. Dan ikun ifisser li l-arja ma tinżammx mill-iżviluppatur iżda tkun parti mill-blokk f’idejn is-sidien tal-flats biex fuqha jistallaw pannelli foto-voltajiċi. Dan jassigura li kull blokk ġdid ta’ flats ikun carbon neutral, jiġifieri jiġġenera elettriku mix-xemx daqs kemm ikun ikkunsmat. Il-pannelli b’hekk jieħdu post il-penthouse.

B’hekk nistgħu nibdew bil-mod insewwu l-ħsara li saret.

Ippubblikat fuq Illum : il-Ħadd 21 ta’ Frar 2021

Solar rights and planning wrongs

Solar rights are once more in the public debate. The number of those aware that utilising solar energy for our needs makes both environmental and economic sense is on the increase. Unfortunately, they are being obstructed by land use planning policy which is only interested in serving greed, camouflaged as development.

The utilisation of the sun’s energy is dependent on what gets in the way of the sun’s rays when we need them!  When most of the Local Plans were approved way back in summer of 2006, the permissible heights of building development in a multitude of areas were substantially increased. At times this increase was from 2 to 5 floors, including a penthouse level. It is worse where semi-basement garages are permissible. This change was in particular applied in respect of large areas with a previous predominance of two floored terraced houses. 

The impact of this change in the permissible height limitation is increasing in severity with time as the redevelopment of old properties is being gradually taken in hand. This is resulting in the shadowing of an ever-increasing number of residential units in a number of residential areas. As a result, solar water heaters and photo voltaic panels installed on a number of roofs in the past years, are now in the shade for a considerable amount of time and consequently are practically useless. Investments made by a number of our families have been sacrificed on the altar of development greed. Subsidies (including those originating from EU funds) which were utilised to assist the tapping of solar energy in a substantial number of cases have thus been thrown down the drain.

This is the result of myopic land use planning which failed to consider obvious impacts. Specifically, it is the result of the failure to subject the proposed height relaxation planning policies to the EU Strategic Environment Assessment Directive. The Strategic Environment Assessment Directive seeks to examine policies, plans and programmes in order to ensure that their environmental aspects are effectively considered.

Those of us familiar with the workings of the Planning Authority are aware that most of the Local Plans were rushed through to approval during the summer of 2006. This was done as any further delay would have made them subject to Strategic Environment Assessment procedures which would have inevitably highlighted the impact of height relaxation on the generation of solar energy. As a result, the conflict with the need to have solar energy generated would have been highlighted and most probably addressed.

While one section of government was encouraging one and all on the need to tap the sun’s rays to generate clean and renewable energy, another section, hostage to the development lobby was obstructing this and pushing forward their need for more space to develop! The rest is history. That space is currently being developed today, in the process obstructing the further generation of renewable energy on our rooftops.

In Parliament, earlier this week Minister for Energy, Enterprise and Sustainable Development Miriam Dalli in reply to a Parliamentary Question from Ryan Callus, spokesperson for Energy on behalf of the Opposition, stated that government was holding internal discussions on the matter.

The matter has been discussed many times to date so I cannot decipher exactly what Minister Miriam Dalli has in mind. There are in fact very few possible options which can be considered.

The most obvious option is to revise as much as possible the height relaxation carried out in 2006. This will be very difficult to carry out, and, if done, it will be immediately followed-up by a request for compensation running into many millions of euro.

Alternatively, one can seek to introduce solar rights on new buildings without further delay. It is possible that planning policy is amended to ensure that all new properties, in particular blocks of flats, should generate sufficient electricity to cater for the number of units in the new block, thus ensuring carbon neutrality. Such a measure would essentially require that the roof is owned together with the individual units in order that owners of the said units may install photo voltaic panels. Consequently, it would signify that the space which till now has been utilised for the development of penthouses would henceforth be reserved for the generation of renewable energy.

In so doing a history of planning wrongs would commence the long and difficult road of correction.

Published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 21 February 2021

Tourism planning needs tuning in to reality

A ten-year tourism strategy entitled Recover, Rethink, Revitalise has been published for consultation. It is a strategy which advocates an improvement in quality but does not seek to address the oversupply of bed-stock.

During summer of 2019, Tony Zahra, President of the Malta Hotels and Restaurants Association (MHRA) had sounded the alarm: he was reported as saying that the number of tourists visiting Malta was too high. He emphasised that it was substantially exceeding the limits of what the country can take sustainably. Tony Zahra was obviously emphasising the interest of the lobby group which he heads: the hotel industry.

The proposed tourism strategy advocates a return to the pre-Covid19 tourism levels, albeit recognising that this will be difficult to achieve as well as accepting that it will take quite some time to be achieved, if at all. Searching through the tourism strategy document for the terms agri-tourism and eco-tourism yields a zero-return indicating that the document is more of a post-Covid hotel industry roadmap than a tourism strategy.

The strategy indicates that the best scenario forecasts until 2030 suggest an increase from the 2019 2.75 million tourists to between 3 and 3.2 million tourists which would generate an average 21 million overnight stays annually. The strategy goes on to state that on the basis of existing and in the pipeline licenced bed-stock this equates to an unprofitable 57.5 per cent occupancy rate. The unlicenced bed stock further dilutes occupancy rates closer to 50 per cent, we are informed by the strategy document.

This does not point towards a potential recovery but more that the tourism industry, is, in this critical period shackled by the land development free-for-all advocated by land use planning policies over the past years. Specifically, this has been done through the continuous tinkering with the height limitation adjustment policy for hotels as well as the haphazard application of flexibility in day-to-day land use planning.

This in no way translates into a quality improvement!

The decadent land use planning process has infected tourism planning too. No wonder that the former Chief Executive of the Planning Authority is now the CEO of the Malta Tourism Authority. It is poetic justice that he should be responsible for cleaning the mess to which he substantially contributed to!

Where do we go from here?

The authors of the tourism strategy are aware that there are other possible solutions but they shoot them down. These last months were an opportunity to re-examine the fundamental role of tourism within the overall socio-economic context of the Maltese islands. The Covid19 pandemic has resulted in a reduced movement of people, a less hectic lifestyle, reduced emissions and the reduction of other negative elements for which tourism is usually singled out as a major contributor. 

Contrary to what the proposed tourism strategy opines, it is not simplistic to seriously consider the need to reset the industry. A lower level of tourism activity would prove beneficial to the destination by making it less busy and less crowded to the benefit of both the local resident population and visitor satisfaction. Obviously, it would reduce the tourism contribution to the national economy, but it would also reduce the substantial costs which planners tend to ignore or else to shift onto other sectors! Costs are not just measured in financial terms but also in terms of environmental and social impacts.  

Some months ago, I had written about turistofobia, a term coined by Catalan anthropologist Manoel Delgado, indicating a mixture of repudiation, mistrust and contempt for tourists and tourism. The social discontent associated with the pressures linked to tourism growth cannot be ignored any further.

Among the issues contributing to this developing tourist phobia are social discomfort, environmental degradation (including both generation of waste and excessive construction activity), traffic congestion, noise, the loss of cultural identity and socio-cultural clashes.

The post-Covid19 recovery is a unique opportunity for tourism planners to take note of and tune in to reality.  Unfortunately, the proposed strategy sidesteps the real issues.

published on The Malta Independent on Sunday : 31 January 2021

Some reflections on the Mafia State

Reading through the terms of reference for the Public Inquiry into the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia, it is amply clear to all as to what the inquiry should be aiming at.

The inquiry’s objective is to determine whether the machinery of government functioned as it should. Did it function in the public interest, or did it function in another manner, in the interest of the few, thereby creating a culture of impunity for the said few?

Some may justifiably argue that the machinery of government, in Malta, never functioned properly. It is further argued that the post 2013 administration made use of a defective machinery of government more efficiently than previous administrations, fine tuning and intensifying political controls in the process, as a result of which the stultification of the functions of the democratic state was accelerated.

The terms of reference agreed to in December 2019 speak of the development of a “de facto state of impunity” and seek to determine whether this could have been avoided through effective criminal law provisions, if such provisions exist.

Do we have a Mafia State? We would definitely have a Mafia State if the machinery of government is tied with organised crime to the extent that state officials become part of a criminal partnership or organisation.

The testimony heard so far in open session during the proceedings of the public inquiry reveals the reluctance of the authorities to investigate thereby paving the way for the development of a culture of impunity. Money-laundering investigations moved at snail’s pace until there was a change in leadership at the Economic Crimes Unit of the Malta Police Force. However, as yet we do not know what was revealed in the testimony behind closed doors. Matters could be considerably worse than what is known so far.

The revelations at the public inquiry must not be seen in isolation. They must be viewed in context of the testimony in the Magistrates Court relative to the criminal proceedings against those accused of carrying out the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia, or of masterminding it.

We have learnt that the alleged master-mind has pleaded with the police that he was carrying out the instructions of the Chief of Staff at the Office of the Prime Minister, Keith Schembri, who categorically denied this. The definite truth is not known yet. So far, we are only sure that the assassination planners were too close to the political nerve centre: just like in a Mafia State. It is at the Office of the Prime Minister that the middleman was offered a government job, one which delivered pay for no work. Part payment for his endeavours as a middleman!

The Ministers testifying at the public inquiry were continuously seeking to pass the buck from the Cabinet to the kitchen cabinet. On the other hand, those forming part of this kitchen cabinet feigned ignorance of their role in circumventing the role of the real cabinet. This is the worrying state of play in which those having responsibility take a step backwards as a result of which their authority ends being wielded by those appointed in lieu of those elected. Collective responsibility has been thrown to the winds.

The latest revelations crown it all. Government’s thinly veiled threats in the past days to the members of the judiciary directing the public inquiry reveal a government in panic mode.

Robert Abela’s unease at this point in time is understandable. After all he was former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s legal advisor. How many skeletons in the cupboard is he aware of?

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday: 20 December 2020

Il-Koħħu u l-Kabinett ta’ Robert Abela

Mhux diffiċli biex tasal għall-isem tal-persuna fil-Kabinett ta’ Robert Abela li dwarha qed issir l-allegazzjoni mill-Koħħu. L-allegazzjoni hi serja ħafna: allegazzjoni li membru tal-Kabinett kien involut fl-ippjanar ta’ delitt.

Li allegazzjoni ta’ din ix-xorta tkun investigata bla dewmien hu essenzjali mhux biss għax is-serjetà hekk titlob imma fuq kollox għax hu ħażin li l-integrità ta’ persuna fil-ħajja pubblika titħalla tiċċappas b’dan il-mod u qiesu ma ġara xejn.

Ma nafx jekk hemmx raġunijiet biżżejjed biex il-Koħħu jingħata l-proklama. Imma hu fl-interess ta’ kulħadd li ma jkollniex persuni fil-ħajja pubblika b’dawn id-dellijiet.

Gvern serju kien jindirizza din l-allegazzjoni f’ħin qasir u kien jagħti sodisfazzjon pubbliku b’mod immedjat.

Dak li ġie allegat dwar membru tal-Kabinett involut fl-ippjanar ta’ delitt għadu mhux miċħud. Kull minuta li tgħaddi bla ċahda hi daqqa ta’ ħarta lill-membri kollha tal-Kabinett.

Qed iħarbtu l-ODZ tal-Kanun Iż-Żebbuġ Għawdex

Dal-għodu ġejt infurmat li f’Tal-Kanun, Iż-Żebbuġ Għawdex, għaddej xogħol ta’ tneħħija ta’ ħamrija. Biex dan qiegħed isir u seta’ jiddaħħal il-makkinarju fuq is-sit tqaċċtu ħafna siġar.

F’Għawdex u in partikolari fiż-Żebbuġ bosta jafu x’inhu għaddej.

Imma l-Awtorità tal-Ippjanar ma taf b’xejn, għax s’issa baqgħet ċassa. Għaliex dan, nistaqsi?

Jiena staqsejt dwar min għandu x’jaqsam mal-art u tawni l-isem ta’ tabib Għawdxi. Bħalma qalu lili bla ebda dubju jistgħu jkunu jaf ta’ Awtorità tal-Ippjanar ukoll bid-dettalji kollha.

Għalfejn ma jagħmlu xejn u bħala riżultat ta’ dan jipproteġu lil min qed jabbuża?

Il-lejla ktibt lis-Sur Martin Saliba CEO tal-Awtorità tal -Ippjanar u tlabtu jara li l-awtorità taġixxi bla iktar dewmien.

When caves collapse: people may be killed

On the 14 September the Planning Authority approved application PA3487/19 which proposed the   “stabilization of dangerous rock slope; repair to deteriorated concrete wall and construction of wave dissipation slope along the Qui Si Sana coastline”.

In simple language this involves a permit for remedial works after a cave along the Sliema Qui Si Sana coastline collapsed, thereby exposing the MIDI development works immediately behind the cave: the basement level of residential blocks T14 and T17.

We have been told that the cave collapsed as a result of erosion along the coastline. Some readers may tend to forget that way back in 2016, a Maltese geologist had sounded the alarm that a “high-rise had been constructed over a fractured and eroded sea cliff, which could collapse any time soon.” The collapse in fact occurred relatively quite soon, signifying that the geologist was pointing out the obvious which was being ignored or not given due consideration by the developer and his advisors.

The point to be made is why the Planning Authority permitted the development to take place so close to the coastline. As far as I am aware, the EIA relative to the Tigne Development by MIDI does not reveal any detailed studies on the condition of the coast as well as on the impacts of erosion on the Qui Si Sana coastline and its relevance to the development of the MIDI project. The issue is not just one of remedial works but on why the Planning Authority  ignored the state of the coast, as a result permitting development too close to the coastline for comfort. The collapse is adequate proof of all this. The Planning Authority has much to explain in this specific case. Its actions, or lack of them, should be investigated.

The issue is not one relative to the structural stability of the development but of the protection of the coastline.

Erosion as a result of natural elements occurs continuously. It is a natural ongoing phenomenon.

In this respect it may be pertinent to draw attention to a report, authored by a team of geologists, dated October 2007 and entitled : “Report on Coastal Sliema. Geology, geomorphology, sites of scientific interest and coastal protection considerations.” This report was commissioned by the Sliema Local Council.

The 50-page report, which makes interesting reading, emphasises that a number of sites along the Sliema coast “are undergoing rapid coastal erosion that will increase with climate change, resulting in instability or failure in coastal infrastructure.”

Of particular interest is that the report, authored in 2007, goes on to state that “The faulted coast along Għar id-Dud is retreating rapidly by dislodgement of boulders along joints and faults. Public structures that may be affected include Tower Road promenade. The Għar id-Dud cave may also partially or totally collapse, leading to the caving-in of the overlying pedestrian promenade. If collapse is sudden and during daytime/early night time, injury and loss of lives may result.”

I have personally drawn attention of the Transport Minister to the above some time ago, however to date I am not aware that any action has been taken.

The matter was already very worrying way back in 2007 and most probably it is even worse now, after thirteen years, given that no coastal protection works have been taken in hand in the area in the intervening period.

The Għar id-Dud cave is the result of natural erosion and collapse accelerated by wave action. This is a natural process that cannot be halted unless adequate coastal protection works are initiated. If nature is left on its own, the end result is quite predictable: a complete collapse of Għar id-Dud, a caving in of the overlying pedestrian promenade and a number of dead or injured pedestrians, depending on the time of day when a collapse possibly occurs.

Will Transport Malta and the other authorities wake up from their slumber and act immediately please?

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday: 27 September 2020