Political calculation or environmental principle?

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Joseph Muscat’s declaration that the Freeport Terminal will not be permitted to expand in Birżebbuġa’s direction due to its impacts on the residential community will inevitably have an effect on the Planning Authority. Viewed in the context of the recent Planning Authority decision not to approve the proposed Ħondoq ir-Rummien development, a pattern seems to be developing.

Given the fact that these two decisions are closely associated with localities that politically support the Labour Party it is still not clear whether this newly discovered sensitivity to restrict development which negatively impacts residential communities is based on political calculation or on environmental principle. This consideration is inevitable, in particular due to the report in this newspaper on 22 June that the Prime Minister had stated, in a discussion with environmental NGO Flimkien għall-Ambjent Aħjar, that he does not care about impact assessments, as residents get used to everything. As far as I am aware, the Office of the Prime Minister never corrected this report.

The Freeport Terminal debate clearly indicates that Birżebbuġa residents are determined to deliver a different message: they have had enough. During the last seven years there has been an ongoing tug-of-war between Birżebbuġa Local Council, MEPA and the Freeport Terminal Management. This has led to a number of improvements, the most important of which was the setting up of a tripartite Environmental Monitoring Committee that has served to build some bridges and to explore solutions to existing problems caused by the operation of the Freeport Terminal.

There was a time, around two years ago, when pressure was put on Birżebbuġa Local Council to drop its objections to specific operations. I distinctly remember representatives from the oil-rig repair industry  trying to convince the Council of the “benefits” that an oil-rig industry based at the Freeport Terminal could generate.

When these representatives realised that no one was convinced, an amendment to the environmental permit was forced through the then MEPA Board. To their credit, only three of the then board members understood the real issues and voted against the proposal: the two MPs (Joe Sammut and Ryan Callus) and the environmental NGO representative Alex Vella of the Ramblers Association.

The amended environmental permit would have permitted minor repairs to ships and oil-rigs berthed at the Freeport Terminal. However, after the MEPA Board meeting all hell broke loose, leading Prime Minister Joseph Muscat to disassociate himself from its decision and publicly align himself with the minority on the board opposing the changes. He then stated that he was in agreement with “his representative”, Labour MP Joe Sammut.

While the Freeport Terminal, faced with the reaction of residents, eventually relinquished the newly-acquired permit, the internal debate within the Labour Party continued, leading to the recent statement by Joseph Muscat that he is not in agreement with an expansion of the Freeport Terminal operations that would have a negative impact on the Birżebbuġa community.

Irrespective of whether it is a matter of principle or a political calculation which has led the Prime Minister to make such a statement, I submit that this is still a significant turning point that has been achieved as a direct result of Birżebbuġa Local Council’s persistent lobbying. It contrasts with the position taken by the Leader of the Opposition, who looks forward to an increase in the operations of the Freeport Terminal, without batting an eyelid over the resulting, continuously increasing, impact on the residential community.

The Prime Minister’s statement, while being a positive first step, is certainly not enough. It needs to be translated into policy as an integral part of the revised Local Plans currently under consideration. It is also important that the Prime Minister’s newly identified sensitivities are exported to other areas in Malta and Gozo. It is essential that, in a small country such as ours, third party rights opposing “development” are reinforced.

The issue at stake is far larger than Birżebbbuġa or the Freeport Terminal. It is a tug-of-war between those supporting “development” at all costs and our residential communities. The government must, through planning policy, be supportive of all our residential communities without exception.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday – 31st July 2016

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Past mistakes, present-day decisions

by Carmel Cacopardo

published on Saturday June 12, 2010

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“Our environment is too small to afford to suffer any more mistakes than we have already committed in the past, sometimes even in the name of tourism and progress.” This was not stated by AD chairman Michael Briguglio but by Parliamentary Secretary Mario de Marco with reference to the pending Ħondoq ir-Rummien Mepa application (The Sunday Times, May 30).

In considering large projects for development permission, the Malta Environment and Planning Authority is not considering environmental and social impacts adequately, opting instead to focus on perceived short-term economic gains. Unfortunately, the paths leading to decisions are guided by experts who should know better.

Some time ago, Mepa approved the extension of the Malta Freeport. In the process, it ignored that such an extension gobbled up the existing buffer zone established way back in 1995. The end result will be a Freeport operating area that is much closer to the Birżebbuġa residential area. The Freeport as it is operating already severely impacts the daily lives of the Birżebbuġa residents. Making things worse will only raise tensions and the loss of at least part of the accumulated social capital of the locality. No amount of mitigation will ever restore what is being lost with Mepa’s blessings.

In deciding on the matter, Mepa has been misguided by an EIA process, which, being financed by the developer, had an interest to shift attention on the over-emphasised perceived economic gains, simultaneously downplaying social and environmental impacts.

The Ħondoq ir-Rummien project seems to be the next issue which further highlights the developing tensions between the residential community and those interested in making a fast buck. The proposal, which involves substantial rock excavation, aims to develop a 170-room hotel, 25 villas, 60 self-catering apartments, 200 residences, parking space and a 150-berth yacht marina.

This proposed development will squeeze out the current uses at Ħondoq ir-Rummien. It will conflict with the public recreational uses the Gozitans and Maltese alike make of the area.

Jeremy Boissevain, in a report commissioned by the Qala local council, has highlighted that the massive scale of the project will practically double the Qala population. The local community has not accepted the proposed intrusion into their lives, which the proposed project suggests. As evidenced by the local referendum held in Qala some years back, the community does not consider the economic aspect on its own. Rather, it should be weighed and compared to the environmental and social impacts it will necessarily generate.

The social and environmental externalities of the project are being repeatedly downplayed by those who want to cash in on the economic benefits such a project will undoubtedly generate for the few. After having cashed in the benefits of property speculation aimed at a 70 per cent foreigner occupancy target, they will then leave the community to carry the burdens and pay the costs, deprived of basic facilities which, to date, have been much used by the public.

Mepa has yet to decide on this project and there is no way of knowing the direction such a decision would take. It is however logical to assume that the line of reasoning the current Mepa board has applied in other cases is of relevance. Hence, the validity of Dr de Marco’s warning on the need to ensure that past mistakes are not repeated, not even on behalf of  “tourism and progress”.

The government is aware that, to date, it has given conflicting signals. Very late in the day, it is realising that it cannot run with the proverbial hares while simultaneously hunting with the hounds. The current state of affairs is the direct result of the ambivalent attitude to environmental issues by politicians from the major parties which have developed the skill of quickly switching mode depending on their audience.

The causes are various.

AD is on record as pointing to two immediate solutions: firstly regulating the funding of political parties and, secondly, for the government to share with the community the process of appointing the Mepa decision-makers, by having the appointees subjected to a public hearing prior to their being appointed.

The major political parties are hostage to the construction industry. This is also evident by the reluctance of Parliament to legislate on party political funding. The parliamentary select committee appointed two years ago has, to date, been ineffective in this respect. Likewise, the Mepa reform process will result in a wasted opportunity, as while it will tinker with a number of issues, it will retain the most essential matters requiring reform untouched.

It is one thing to speak on past mistakes and quite another to move up the learning curve. Past mistakes will most probably be reflected in present-day decisions. At least for the time being.

I hope that I will be proven wrong.

original at Times of Malta website

World Environment Day Message – Messaġġ għal Jum l-Ambjent

On the occasion of World Environment Day, commemorated annually on the 5 June, Carmel Cacopardo AD Spokesman on Sustainable Development and Local Government has on behalf of Alternattiva Demokratika The Green Party in Malta  issued the following message :

 During the past twelve months the environment has topped the citizen agenda many times. Air Quality, energy security and flawed tendering processes, land use planning which leaves much to be desired, depleted water resources, excessive and uncontrolled noise and congested roads due to overdue public transport reform, issues relative to biodiversity loss,  have been some of the topics on which AD has repeatedly spoken throughout the past twelve months.  

Government continuously speaks in favour of environmental measures but then its actions do not always correspond to its statements. It is not the monies spent which indicate the level of environmental commitment but the impacts and the positive results attained in addressing the most pressing environmental problems. 

Whilst the “black dust” saga is still officially unresolved it is known that research carried out at the Department of Chemistry at the University of Malta as far back as the  year 2000 had already indicated that the Marsa Power Station was the possible source of this black dust. Not indentifying a solution to this problem in 10 years is a clear indication of the “green credentials” which this government  speaks about but does not manifest in its actions.   

On a positive note AD has noted the statement made over the weekend by new Parliamentary Secretary responsible for the Environment, Dr Mario De Marco, on the need to be very cautious in tackling the proposed Hondoq ir-Rummien project. “Our environment is too small to afford to suffer any more mistakes than we have already committed in the past, sometimes even in the name of tourism and progress”  stated Dr De Marco (Sunday Times of Malta: Sunday 30 May 2010). Whilst AD endorses Dr De Marco’s statement, it invites government to realise that these mistakes have been committed by public authorities made up of appointees whose only credentials were their political allegiances. AD looks forward  to the day when decisions are taken by competent authorities and not by politicians in disguise or by proxy.  MEPA reform currently in hand unfortunately does not point in this direction.

In view of all this AD considers that it is time to stand up and be counted. We need to be ambassadors of a radically different future. This can be achieved if more resources are allocated to establish an administrative capacity for dealing with environmental issues as well as ensuring that a consensual environmental policy is developed for these islands.  AD as always is available to give its contribution.

AD reiterates that the environment is a political issue and the election of AD in local, national and European elections will ensure that it is given the priority it deserves through a vision of sustainable development.
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Fl-okkażjoni tal-Jum Dinji tal-Ambjent imfakkar kull sena nhar il-5 ta’ Ġunju,  Carmel Cacopardo kelliemi ta’ Alternattika Demokratika dwar l-Iżvilupp Sostenibbli  u l-Gvern Lokali ħareġ dan il-messaġġ  :

Matul dawn l-aħħar tnax-il xahar l-ambjent kien fuq quddiem nett fl-aġenda taċ-ċittadin Malti. Il-kwalita’ tal-arja, is-sigurta’ tal-enerġija u s-sejħiet għall-offerti b’elf difett, l-ippjanar dwar l-użu tal-art li ma jindirizzax dak mistenni min-nies, ir-riżorsi tal-ilma mhux imħarsa u dejjem jonqsu, l-istorbju eċċessiv u mhux kontrollat, it-toroq mimlija traffiku minħabba r-riforma tat-trasport pubbliku li dejjem ġejja u qatt ma tasal, telfin tal-biodiversita`: dawn kienu wħud mis-suġġetti li Alternattiva repetutament tkellmet dwarhom matul is-sena li għaddiet.  

Il-Gvern kontinwament jitkellem favur il-ħarsien ambjentali, imma mbagħad dak li jagħmel mhux dejjem jikkorrispondi ma’ dak li jiddikjara. Il-flejjes minfuqa ma jindikawx il-kredenzjali ambjentali tal-Gvern imma l-impatti tagħom u r-riżultati pożittivi li jinkisbu minnhom juru kredibilta.  

Il-każ tat-“trab iswed” għadu uffiċjalment ma issolviex. Iżda hu magħruf li riċerka li saret fid-Dipartiment tal-Kimika fl-Universita’ ta Malta fis-sena 2000 kienet diġa indika li l-Power Station tal-Marsa kienet probabilment il-kawża tiegħu. Meta wara għaxar snin għada mhix identifikajt l-oriġini u s-soluzzjoni għal din il-problema huwa indikazzjoni ċara ta’ kemm dan il-Gvern jitkellem biss favur il-ħarsien ambjentali, mingħajr ebda azzjoni pożittiva favur dan il-għan!….. anzi.

Fuq nota pożittiva Alternattiva Demokratika tinnota l–istqarrija fi tmiem il-ġimgħa mis-Segretarju Parlamentari l-ġdid responsabbli għall-Ambjent, Dr Mario De Marco, dwar il-ħtieġa ta’ attenzjoni kbira fuq kif jittieħdu d-deċiżjonijiet dwar il-proġett propost għal Ħondoq ir-Rummien. “L-ambjent tagħna hu żgħir wisq biex nistgħu nitgħabbew b’iktar żbalji bħal dawk li kkommettejna fil-passat, xi kultant anke’ f’isem it-turiżmu u l-progress” qal Dr De Marco (Sunday Times of Malta: 30 ta’ Mejju 2010). Filwaqt li Alternattiva Demokratika taqbel ma’ din id-dikjarazzjoni ta’ Dr De Marco, tistieden lill-Gvern biex jifhem li dawn l-iżbalji seħħew minn awtoritiajiet pubbliċi magħmula minn persuni li l-uniċi kredenzjali tagħhom kienu l-fehmiet politiċi. Alternattiva Demokratika taspira li jasal dak il-jum fejn dawn id-deċiżjonijiet ma jibqgħux jittieħdu mill-politiċi minn wara l-kwinti jew bil-ġbid tal-ispag. Sfortunatament ir-riforma tal-MEPA dan kollu tinjorah.     

Fid-dawl ta’ dan, Alternattiva Demokratika hi tal-fehma li wasal iż-żmien li kulħadd isemma’ leħnu. Hemm ħtieġa li nkunu ambaxxaturi ta’ futur radikalment differenti mill-present li qed ngħixu fih. Dan jista’ jseħħ bl-allokazzjoni ta’ aktar riżorsi biex tinbena l-kapaċita amminsutrattiva u teknika meħtieġa għall-oqsma kollha ambjentali kif ukoll biex jiġi assigurat illi tkun żviluppata politika ambjentali konsenswali. Alternattiva Demokratika bħal dejjem hi lesta u disposta biex tagħti sehemha.

Alternattiva Demokratika hi tal-fehma li l-ambjent hu materja ta’ politika u li l-elezzjoni ta’ Alternattiva Demokratika f’-elezzjonijiet lokali, nazzjonali jew Ewropej tkun l-assigurazzjini li l-ambjent jingħata prijorita’ li jixraqlu f’viżjoni ta’ żvilupp sostenibbli.

Ta’ Ċenċ Salvat !

 

Il-MEPA estendiet il-protezzjoni ta’ Ta’ Ċenċ. Dan hu pass tajjeb il-quddiem fil-ħarsien ambjentali li għandu ħtieġa tiegħu pajjiżna.

Imma jkun floku li niftakru li dan sar wara snin ta’ protesti u oġġezzjonijiet għall-iżvilupp propost fl-inħawi. Ġew dedikati mijiet ta’ siegħat f’laqgħat u protesti minn bosta, fosthom Alternattiva Demokratika u l-parti l-kbira tal-NGOs. Fl-aħħar, il-Gvern permezz tal-MEPA baxxa rasu. Għal snin sħaħ iżda irresista dan il-pass.

Tafu x’kienet id-differenza ?

Is-sħubija ta’ Malta fl-Unjoni Ewropea għamlet id-differenza kollha : huwa biss bħala riżultat tal-isħubija ta’ Malta fl-EU li l-Gvern permezz tal-MEPA ġie f’sessieh.

Kien hemm diversi attentati sa l-aħħar mumenti biex ikun hemm resistenza istituzzjonali  għal dan il-pass. Fosthom iż-żjara (rappurtata fil-gazzetti) mill-iżviluppatur akkumpanjat (skond il-gazzetti) minn uffiċjali pubbliċi go Brussel. Kien hemm ukoll xi laqgħat li saru bil-kwiet biex titrattab l-opposizzjoni għall-proposti ta’ żvilupp ta’ Ta’ Ċenċ.

Imma fortunatament is-sħubija fl-EU bdiet tagħti l-frott għall-ħarsien tal-ambjent. Li kieku 4 snin ilu Malta ma ssieħbitx fl-Unjoni Ewropea jien konvint li Ta’ Ċenċ diġa ilu kkundannat għall-kostruzzjoni.

Issa wara Ta’ Ċenċ imiss Ħondoq ir-Rummien li ukoll jeħtieġ li jkun imħares minn ħalq l-ispekulaturi.

Nistennew u naraw.