ODZ lessons : from  Żonqor to Għargħur

 

A planning application (PA3592/16)  to construct a home for the elderly in the area between Naxxar and Għargħur was due to be discussed by the Planning Authority Board on Thursday. Less than five hours before it was due to begin, however, the public hearing was postponed. There may be valid reasons for the postponement but, so far, such reasons – if they exist – are still unknown.

For the past few months, Alternattiva Demokratika, the Green Party in Malta, has been supporting the residents who are opposed to the development of this privately-owned  home in their neighbourhood since the planning application was first published.

There are various reasons which justify opposition to this proposed development. When faced with such a proposal, the first reactions understandably relate to the direct impact that it will have on the residential community – during both the construction phase and  the operational phase of the proposed facility. During the construction phase, this impact would include excavation noise and vibration, the nuisance caused by airborne dust during construction and the general inconvenience resulting from a large construction site very close to a residential community.

Once the home is in use, the traffic generated at all times of the day – as well as the occupying of residents’ parking spaces by visitors – will be one of the most pressing concerns to justify opposition to the proposal.

These are sensible reasons which justify opposition to the proposed development, even though some mitigation of these impacts is generally possible.

In my opinion, however, before even considering the proposal, it has to be emphasised that the construction of a home for the elderly outside the development zone (ODZ) between Naxxar and Għargħur is a good reason for objection in principle.

On the grounds of social policy, to continue encouraging the institutional care of the aged by way of residential homes does not hold water. It makes much more sense to help the older members of our society to remain in their homes as an integral part of the community, close to their roots, as long as this is possible. This should be the preferred option, rather than forcing them to abandon their roots and move away to the outskirts of our towns and villages.

The Social Policy Ministry harps on about the integration of the elderly in the community while the authority responsible for land use planning is facilitating their segregation. Obviously, somewhere there is a lack of understanding and coordination.

Locating homes for the elderly on the edges of our towns and villages is, in the long term, unsustainable. In addition to fostering segregation, instead of encouraging inclusion, it creates an environmental deficit by encouraging the displacement of a number of the residents of our town and village centres to what is now considered as ODZ land. As a result, this leads to an increase in the number of vacant residential properties while simultaneously adding to the built footprint of the Maltese islands – as if we do not have more than enough developed land!

The 2011 Census identified Għargħur as having a 28.5 per cent residential property vacancy rate. The rate for Naxxar was 24.5. These official statistics, which include both vacant properties and partially vacant properties, will undoubtedly get much worse.

This leads to another argument against the proposal to provide a home for the elderly in this particular area.  How can we justify taking up ODZ land for further development when even the site selection exercise, carried out as part of the application process, identified alternative sites within the development zone?

It seems that not enough lessons have been learnt as a result of the Żonqor debacle.  Is it not about time that the Planning Authority puts its house in order?

Policy coordination between the Ministries concerned with social policy, sustainable development, the environment and land use planning is obviously the missing link and should be addressed immediately.

published in the Malta Independent on Sunday – 25 June 2017

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The airport and its neighbours

3D aerial view of scheme.MIA 2015

 

Earlier this week, the management of Malta’s International Airport announced a €78 million investment programme, aimed at enlarging the terminal buildings, improving and upgrading existing facilities for the handling of passengers and  further developing a business hub.

The airport terminal at Gudja is Malta’s only such facility and so, to a certain extent, the further development of the existing capacity to handle the arrival and departure of passengers is essential. And yet, due to the limitations of size, the proximity of Gudja’s airport to the surrounding villages of Luqa, Gudja, Kirkop and Safi has to be borne in mind. Size limitations signify that even essential works will have an impact on the surrounding communities and thus have to be thought out carefully.

Its been over five years since MEPA has received a planning application for the consideration of an updated master-plan for Malta International Airport. PA5548/10 was submitted in November 2010. A previous version of the master-plan was approved in 1997 (PA5681/96) while another version, submitted in 2003 (PA5306/03), was withdrawn.

The latest proposed master-plan currently under consideration by MEPA includes provision for the enlargement of the terminal building to include additional facilities to handle passenger traffic as well as the construction of five new buildings for a range of commercial and leisure activities.

The proposed masterplan and the environmental planning statement (EPS) published late in 2014 for public consultation focus on the proposed business hub and emphasise that the well-established trend for international airports is to expand to “include ancillary business and retail facilities.”

The masterplan was fed by two studies commissioned by the Malta International Airport. The first – carried out by Locum Consulting – studied the office market in Malta and apparently concluded that the “high quality office stock supply” is limited in comparison to the existing demand.  An audit of the proposed masterplan was also carried out by Eriksson + Partner GmbH.

The EPS contains selective quotes from these two reports, but the reports themselves have not been made public. Both MEPA and MIA have resisted requests to publish these reports as they consider that they are commercial reports and do not contain information on environmental impact.

Malta’s only airport has its requirements. In particular, it needs to cater for the increasing number of passengers it handles. This year, the number of passengers handled has recently surpassed the 4.5 million mark. It will undoubtedly continue to rise and it stands to reason that the passenger-handling facilties, currently bursting at the seams, need to be upgraded.

What number of passengers is being planned for? What are the forecasts ? This information is not available as part of the documentation which has been published to date.

The inevitable increase in the number of passengers to be handled by MIA will have an impact on the surrounding area. The traffic generated, and the  emissions associated with this, will further deteriorate the air quality in the main roads leading to Gudja. There will also be an increase in noise pollution.

The Environment Planning Statement identified the Ħal-Farruġ Road/Qormi Road roundabout at Luqa as requiring upgrading  as a result of long-term traffic projections made. It did not, however, identify any other major traffic impact on the villages surrounding the airport. In particular, the EPS did not consider it relevant to consider that already, at this point in time, the residential area of Gudja – less than 50 metres away from the boundary of the airport carpark –  is being used by airport employees and passengers as an additional carpark, thereby creating an unnecessary burden on Gudja itself.

The current burden for the airport’s core functions, and the first phase of the Skyparks project, are primarily being borne by the communities of Luqa, Gudja, Kirkop and Safi.

Additional impact due to an increase in the airport’s core functions is unavoidable. But making matters worse through further development of the airport as a business hub is verging on sadistic. Gudja’s airport should not be compared to major airports when determining long-term functions, but rather to regional airports.

Given Malta’s size, practically all facilities are available within a 15-minute drive from the airport. It would hence make sense for the airport’s management to realise that the airport’s corporate social responsibility should not be limited to funding some restoration projects. It is about time that it focused on the fact that human beings reside in the surrounding villages. The airport’s contribution to Malta’s economic performance is welcome but this should not be at the expense of the quality of life of the surrounding communities.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday, 27 December 2015

In Tourism – small is beautiful too

Villa del Porto Kalkara

First published in 1973, Ernst Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful – economics as if people mattered has always presented a challenge to politicians and economic planners. It contrasts to, and in many instances it actually is, the direct antithesis of the “economies of scale” and as such it is often discarded by those who dream of quick results.

Schumacher, an economist by training, had one specific message: the promotion of people-centred economics. Our economics are profit-focused, with decisions being constantly made on profitability criteria, rather than on human needs. People should come before profits.

Human needs as well as environmental impact should be factored in at the drawing-board stage of all economic decisions. Reading through plans and strategies on the development of tourism in Malta over the years, one inevitably reaches the conclusion that these plans and strategies are focused on hotels, as if nothing else mattered. Tourism is, however, much more than hotels and the hotel industry.

It is only fairly recently that some thought is being given to boutique hotels and agri-tourism: alternative, small-scale tourism opportunities.  Yet much more needs to be done if we are to move along the path of sustainable tourism which, whilst being practically harmless environmentally, can be of considerable benefit not just to our economy but also to our families, in particular those in small communities.

Earlier this week, I was alerted by residents in Lija to an application submitted to MEPA [PA2822/15] to convert a large townhouse in a residential area into a boutique hotel. This proposed hotel would have nine bedrooms with ancillary facilities and it covers a total area of 1,110 square metres, including a garden. When finished, it could cater for a maximum of twenty guests.

Being small, such a boutique hotel would  fit in easily in any of our towns or villages. Its impact would be compatible with that generated by three or four families in the community. Being generally family-run helps considerably to give a human face to this tourism outlet as well as offering excellent service.

However the local residents are  worried about the compatibility of this development with the residential nature of the area. Their worries are not just about the impact of the hotel’s services but more on the possible spinoffs such as whether the bar and restaurant, as well as the swimming pool  – to be constructed in what is currently the garden – would be open to people who are  not actually staying in the hotel. The residents are worried about noise pollution well into the silent hours, the generation of increased traffic and subsequent parking problems – problems they associate with such spin-off activities.

The residents cannot be blamed for their concerns because no one has explained what the practical operational limits of boutique hotels will be – and this is because there are no MEPA guidelines on the subject. The various applications for the provision of boutique hotels that MEPA has processed in the recent past are considered within existing general policies. Likewise, perusal of the Malta Tourism Authority’s website does not reveal any guidelines to help prospective developers of boutique hotels navigate the relatively unchartered waters of such an activity in a residential area.

A number of local councils are similarly concerned because, although they understand and appreciate the benefits to the local economy of encouraging the use of large properties as boutique hotels they are apprehensive about the collateral damage to community life. Large townhouses as well as historical buildings in our towns and villages can be given a new life by being converted to boutique hotels but great care must be taken to ensure that this development is not driven by economics alone. It needs to be community driven and local councils in particular need to be partners in this drive to develop an untapped area of sustainable tourism.

If handled properly, it is potentially a win-win situation but the concerns of the residential communities must be addressed immediately. If this is done, tourism will take a gigantic step forward as it will develop a human face.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday – 23 August 2015