Malta’s Nine Ghost Towns

The 2005 Census had revealed that 53,136 residential units in Malta were vacant. This was an increase of 17,413 units over the 35,723 vacant residential units identified during the 1995 Census. Faced with an increase of over 48 per cent in 10 years, a responsible government would have contained the development boundaries as existing supply can satisfy the demand for residential accommodation for many years to come.

In 2006, just nine months after the 2005 Census, the Nationalist Party-led Government defied common sense and, instead of applying the brakes, it further increased the possibilities for building development through three specific decisions. Through the rationalisation process, the PN-led Government extended the boundaries of development in all localities. Then it facilitated the construction of penthouses by relaxing the applicable conditions. If this were not enough, it increased the height limitations in various localities, intensifying development in existing built-up areas.

As a result of increasing the permissible heights, sunlight was blocked off low-lying residential buildings in the affected areas.

These residences were using sunlight to heat water through solar water heaters or to generate electricity through photovoltaic panels installed on their rooftops.

They can now discard their investments in alternative energy thanks to the PN-led Government’s land use policies!

The result of these myopic land use planning policies further increased the number of vacant properties, which is estimated as being in excess of 70,000 vacant residential units. (Mepa chairman Austin Walker, in an interview in June 2010, had referred to an estimated 76,000 vacant residential properties.)

The estimated total of vacant residential properties is equivalent to nine times the size of the residential area of Birkirkara, the largest locality in Malta, which, in 2005, had 7,613 residential units.

These ghost towns over the years have gobbled up resources to develop or upgrade an infrastructure that is underutilised. Spread all over the Maltese islands, these ghost towns have required new roads, extending the drainage system, extending the utility networks and street lighting as well as various other services provided by local councils.

The funds channelled to service ghost towns could have been better utilised to upgrade the infrastructure in the existing localities over the years.

The above justifies calls for an urgent revision of development boundaries through a reversal of the 2006 rationalisation exercise where land included for development in 2006 is still uncommitted.

Similarly, the relaxation of height limitations and the facilitated possibility to construct penthouses should be reversed forthwith.

All this is clearly in conflict with the efforts being made by the Government itself, assisted with EU funds, to increase the uptake of solar water heaters and photovoltaic panels.

I am aware of specific cases where decisions to install photovoltaic panels have had to be reversed as a result of the development permitted on adjacent property subsequent to the 2006 height relaxation decisions.

In its electoral manifesto for the forthcoming election, AD, the Green party, will be proposing a moratorium on large-scale development in addition to the reversal of the above policies as it is unacceptable that the construction industry keeps gobbling up land and, as a result, adding to the stock of vacant property.

The market has been unable to deal with the situation and, consequently, the matter has to be dealt by a government that is capable of taking tough decisions in the national interest.

Neither the PN nor the Labour Party are capable of taking such decisions as it has been proven time and again that both of them are hostages to the construction industry.

The slowdown of the activities of the construction industry is the appropriate time to consider the parameters of its required restructuring. It is clear that the construction industry has to be aided by the State to retrain its employees in those areas of operation where lack of skills exist.

There are three such areas: traditional building trades, road construction and maintenance as well as marine engineering.

Traditional building skills are required primarily to facilitate rehabilitation works of our village cores and to properly maintain our historical heritage. Our roads require more properly-trained personnel so that standards of road construction and maintenance are improved and works carried out in time. Our ports and coastal defences require a well-planned maintenance programme and various other adaptation works as a result of the anticipated sea-level variations caused by climate change.

The construction industry employs about 11,000 persons. It is imperative that its restructuring is taken in hand immediately.

In addition to halting more environmental damage, a long overdue restructuring will also serve to mitigate the social impacts of the slowdown on the families of its employees through retraining for alternative jobs both in the construction industry itself and elsewhere.

The so-called ‘social policy’ of the PN and the PL have neglected these families for years on end.

 

published in The Times on 29 September 2012

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Green Icing on half-baked cake

times_of_malta196x703published on 15 November 2008

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by Carmel Cacopardo

 

 

The budget environmental initiatives can best be described as green icing on the cake. However,once you cut through the icing there is not much to be overjoyed with. These initiatives could be considered as a declaration of intent: the good intentions being severely hampered by the government’s lack of action in the past, even the very recent past. As a result it is very difficult for these initiatives to yield positive results at the present time.

A number of initiatives are linked to transport. While the proposal to refund 15.25 per cent of a bicycle’s cost is welcome, it lacks the support of the necessary infrastructure thereby severely diluting its significance and possible impact. There are very few cycle lanes on our roads, and those that exist are frequently obstructed or else end abruptly. Few bicycle racks were installed in our towns and villages, the most notable being the ones in Birkirkara installed by the local council on the initiative of Green local councillor Mario Mallia during his term of office some years ago.

Others exist in Attard, a credit to Attard Green councillor Ralph Cassar. But very few exist elsewhere. AD is insisting through its local councillors in Attard (Ralph Cassar), Sliema (Michael Briguglio) and Ta’ Sannat (John Mizzi) for more initiatives which would make our roads bicycle friendly. It is only thus that the budget bicycle initiative could make any sense. What about some action by ADT?

The new car tax regime (both registration tax and circulation tax) could have been designed in a better manner. The age of a car, for example, is not necessarily conducive to increased environmental impacts.

The actual emissions as resulting from the VRT test would have been a much better point of reference than vehicle age in determining car taxation. This would encourage and reward those who keep their cars in good working order.

The budget also increased the licence fees (circulation tax) to be paid relative to cars currently on the road. When viewed within the context of the practical inexistence of a reliable public transport service, in the short term this is bad policy.

In the long term, however, it could be an adequate policy tool to encourage the reduction of the 295,000 cars currently on the road. In order to function properly eco taxation requires the existence of an alternative to what is being taxed: the alternative in this case being public transport. In the absence of an alternative the end result will be socially regressive: reduced accessibility to those at the lower end of the social ladder. If the real objective of the new car licence rates (circulation tax) is environmental, it would have been much better for all if they were not applicable immediately. Their applicability should be linked to the reform of the public transport system.

Government’s encouragement of photovoltaic panel installation is very limited. It is generous but due to financial constraints it will be limited to around 200 households.

It is also hampered by other issues which have not yet been addressed. Issues of ownership of airspace have to be examined and new concepts as to its use have to be developed. Likewise from a land use planning point of view any future increase of permissible building heights has to be balanced against the right of access to solar energy.

The direct subsidy of photovoltaic panel purchase is not the only way to encourage installation. The government should explore schemes through which the purchase price is paid through the electrical energy generated. An initiative such as this would render solar energy accessible to those who do not have the required capital outlay readily available.

The eco tax applicable to incandescent light bulbs and the increase in eco tax payable on plastic bags were long overdue. However, the government must explain how it will tackle its major loophole in this respect. It is a known fact, at times documented in the media, that the manner in which eco taxes are being evaded is through overland supplies from neighbouring Sicily. It is eco tax versus the free movement of goods. Will checks be introduced at the border to control blatant and obvious tax evasion?

It is also amusing to note that the government is a late convert to the applicability of eco taxation in the tourism sector. The rate to be applied as from 2010 is insignificant but at last this green principle, which was under attack on the eve of the 2004 European Parliament elections, has now been accepted. Tourism has to date been excluded from the applicability of the polluter pays principle. Hopefully it will slowly come in line. Next to follow should be MTA encouragement of eco and agro tourism. These are forms of tourism with substantially lower environmental impacts than conventional tourism.

The green icing may be fine, but if the cake is half-baked what’s the use?

Addressing Our Environmental Deficit

published on Sunday 27 July 2008

by Carmel Cacopardo

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 In his address to Parliament last May, the President had stated: “The government’s plans and actions are to be underpinned by the notion of sustainable development of the economy, of society and of the environment. When making decisions today, serious consideration will be given to the generations of tomorrow.”

In December 2006, the National Sustainability Commission had drawn up the National Sustainable Development Strategy. Having been approved by Cabinet, it is appropriate that the pre-budget document just published ignites the debate on its implementation. The strategy is a blueprint for action representing a holistic perspective as to how this country should be administered. Its eventual handling will in due course give a clear indication of the government’s real views on sustainable development.

Malta’s energy policy is undoubtedly up for an upheaval. Due to the absence of strategic planning over the years, Malta is one of the few countries without any significant alternative energy generated. Other countries identified their vulnerability because of fuel oil dependency years ago and took action. Denmark has since built up its wind energy industry from scratch since the oil crises in the 1970s and is now a world leader. In 2005 Denmark generated 18.5 per cent of its electrical energy needs through wind.

The pre-budget document identifies near shore wind technology as the next step forward, contributing 95MW of wind energy or seven per cent of Malta’s projected electricity demand in 2010. The shortfall in meeting the EU target of having 10 per cent of electricity demand met by alternative energy is planned to be met with wind turbines at other exposed land sites and industrial estates, including those to be identified within the framework of the eco-Gozo project.

The pre-budget document focuses on macro-generation and does not give sufficient weight to micro-generation of energy, both with small wind turbines as well as with photovoltaic panels. It must be borne in mind that micro-generation if adequately motivated could add up to a substantial amount of energy generated through alternative technology. In addition to residential application (not flats or maisonettes!), schools and public buildings could be ideal sites for the micro-generation of energy. Moreover, one can consider fitting micro-turbines to the structures of the hundreds of disused windmills (water pumps) that pepper the countryside. These windmills were strategically located by our ancestors in wind-prone areas and are now an integral part of the Maltese countryside.

The pre-budget document rightly refers to energy generated through waste. It speaks of the generation of electricity using animal waste through biogas in a facility to be constructed in the north of the island. This is a long overdue initiative. However, I believe that it is badly conceived. The lessons that should have been learnt following the Sant’ Antnin debacle seem to have been forgotten.

The point at issue is whether one facility covering the whole island is sufficient or desirable. Would it be a good idea to transport animal manure across the whole island to a facility in the north?

One point resulting from the public debate relative to the Sant’ Antnin waste recycling plant was the applicability of the proximity principle. The required plant should be sited as close as possible to the source of the waste being processed. This had led to the Sant ‘Antnin projected operation itself being scaled down to deal with one third of the islands’ waste. The rest, it was stated, should be processed on other sites (possibly two) that have not yet been identified! These other sites should be used for the production of biogas too and they should be identified in a location as close as possible to those areas that have the largest number of animal farms in order to minimise the movement of animal waste. Knowing that a number of these farms are sited very close to each other should make matters easier for our waste management planners.

Bad planning brings out another sore point, which was not discussed in the pre-budget document: namely the management of our water resources. Groundwater (a ‘free’ source of freshwater) still accounts for 40 per cent of our potable water supply. Groundwater accounts for the greater part of the water used by agriculture, the construction sector, landscaping activities and various other industrial and commercial concerns, including some hotels which are supplied by bowsers. However, as a result of over-extraction, the quality of the water in the aquifer is becoming saltier by the day and will become useless within our lifetime.

Yet, illegal extraction of ground water continues unabated and the authority responsible for the sustainable use of this precious resource (the Malta Resources Authority) persists in not taking any concrete action. The recent increase in the surcharge on mains water will inevitably result in a rush to drill more boreholes and extract more groundwater, with the consequence that our aquifer will die an earlier death.

Within this context, the construction of wastewater treatment plants treating urban wastewater and discharging it directly into the sea assumes an alarming relevance. A country whose natural water resources are not sufficient for its use ought to manage its water resources in a much better way. It certainly ought not to permit the illegal extraction of water or the discharge of treated water into the sea. The siting of the wastewater treatment plants in Malta and Gozo is such that discharging treated water into the sea is a foregone conclusion. This decision, undoubtedly arrived at based on the original siting of the sewage outfalls, ignores the possibilities to reuse the treated water, either as a second-class source or (with additional treatment) as potable water. Other developed countries, notably Singapore, produce an ever-increasing percentage of their potable water in this manner. This issue is ignored in the pre-budget report.

All this could easily have been prevented with a proper water management planning strategy, which, instead of large-scale plants for wastewater treatment, could have identified a number of smaller sites along the sewer route on the islands for the construction of small packaged wastewater treatment plants. These would have provided ample treated effluent where and when required for agricultural use, landscaping and other uses not requiring water of potable quality – at little or no distribution costs. The widespread availability of this water would have substituted the need to extract groundwater and facilitated the required enforcement action on its illegal extraction.

The total costs would have been substantially less. By costs I do not just mean economic ones but also the ecological cost of losing a strategic resource (the aquifer), which loss will have to be borne by future generations.

As indicated in the public hearings carried out by Minister Tonio Fenech, the pre-budget document deals with the sustainability of localities, rightly linking this issue to the proposed reform of local councils. It refers to the need for localities to draw up a Local Sustainable Development Strategy. In environmental management, we normally consider this within the Local Agenda 21 process currently espoused by thousands of localities around the globe: think global act local.

The sustainable localities proposal is undoubtedly well intentioned, and if adequately planned and applied can lead to positive results. The difficulty that will arise is that of economies of scale. Our localities vary substantially in size: from the largest – Birkirkara, to the smallest – San Lawrenz in Gozo. I believe that the best manner to apply Local Agenda 21 in Malta would be on a regional level. It would entail the setting up an additional level of local government that could be made up of all the local councils in the region. One possibility for the identification of regions would be to follow the boundaries of the seven local plans. These regions could be the channel for drawing up a Local Agenda 21 in conformity with national policy and strategies, which allow ample room for adequate planning. The proposed Conference on Local Sustainable Development would be a good start.

The basic point at issue in all deliberations is to view the economy as a tool at the service of the eco-system rather than as master of all. Adopting sustainable development as a policy instrument is no easy task. It entails taking a holistic view of public administration and its consequences. It signifies that national policy and administrative action need to have a continuous long-term view.

Economic policy generally takes on board social policy. It now needs to ensure that it is subservient to the eco-system because at the end of the day the eco-system is the source of our being. It is only at this point that we will be in a position to settle our country’s accumulated environmental deficit!