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