A financial surplus, yet an environmental deficit

As was expected, last Monday’s budget speech solemnly announced a budget surplus for the first time in many years. However, the environmental deficit was, as usual, hidden between the lines.

The budget is aptly titled Preparing for the Future (Inlestu għall-Futur). In dealing with environmental issues, the budget speech does not lay down clearly the path the government will be following. At times, it postpones matters – proposing studies and consultations on subjects that have been in the public domain for ages.

On the subject of vacant properties, the government prefers the carrot to the stick. In order to get dilapidated and empty properties in village centres back on the rental market, it is offering a €25,000 grant to renovate such properties, but then rightly insists that, once renovated these should be made available for social housing for a minimum of 10 years. In previous budgets, various other fiscal incentives have been offered to encourage such properties being placed back on the market.

After offering so many carrots, it would also make sense to use the stick by way of taxing vacant properties in situations where the owner is continuously ignoring the signals sent regarding the social, economic and environmental impacts of empty properties.

The budget speech announced improvements to rental subsidies. However, it then opted to postpone the regulation of the rental market. It announced a White Paper on the subject which, when published, will propose ways of regulating the market without in any way regulating the subject of rents. In view of the currently abnormal situation of sky-high rents, this is sheer madness.

It is fine to ensure that the duties and responsibilities of landlords and tenants are clearly spelt out. Does anyone argue with that in 2017? It should have been done years ago. Instead of a White Paper a Legal Notice defining clear-cut duties and responsibilities would suffice: there is no need to wait.

It is, however, too much to bear when a “social democrat” Finance Minister declares  that he will not even consider rent control. There are ways and means of ensuring that the market acts fairly. Other countries have done it and are still doing it, as rental greed has no preferred nationality. Ignoring this possibility is not a good omen. The market should not be glorified by the Finance Minister; it should be tamed rather than further encouraged to keep running wild with the resulting social havoc it has created.

This brings us to transport and roads. The Finance Minister sends a clear message when he stated (on page 44 of the budget speech) that no one should be under the illusion that upgrading the road infrastructure will, on its own, resolve the traffic (congestion) problem. Edward Scicluna hints on the following page of his speech that he is not too happy with the current situation. He laments that the more developed countries encourage active mobility through walking, cycling and the use of motorbikes, as well as various means of public transport, simultaneously discouraging the use of the private car. However, he does not then proceed to the logical conclusion of his statement: scrapping large-scale road infrastructural projects such as the proposed Marsa flyover or the proposed tunnels below the Santa Luċija roundabout announced recently by Minister Ian Borg.

These projects, like the Kappara flyover currently in its final stages, will only serve to increase the capacity of our roads. And this means only one thing: more cars on our roads. It is certified madness.

While the Government’s policy of increasing the capacity of existing roads through the construction of flyovers and tunnels will address congestion in the short term, it will lead to increased traffic on our roads. This moves the problem to the future, when it will be worse and more difficult to tackle. The government is acting like an overweight individual who ‘solves’ the problem of his expanding wasteline by changing his wardrobe instead of going on a painful but necessary diet.

This cancels out the positive impact of other policies announced in the budget speech such as free public transport to young people aged between 16 and 20, free (collective) transport to all schools, incentives for car-pooling, grants encouraging the purchase of bicycles, pedelec bicycles and scooters, reduction in the VAT charged when hiring bicycles as well as the introduction of bicycle lanes, as well as encouraging the purchase of electric or hybrid vehicles.

All this contributes to the current environmental deficit. And I have not even mentioned issues of land use planning once.

Published in The Malta Independent on Sunday – 15 October 2017

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Beyond roundabouts and flyovers

 

The need for adequate traffic management is apparently, at last, very high on the list of matters preoccupying the Maltese public. The solutions to the problems we face, however, depends on the behaviour of each and every one of us.

Traffic congestion is a constant irritation, as our roads are clogged for longer periods of time and in addition to wasting an ever-increasing amount of time in traffic, we are simultaneously constantly reducing the quality of the air we breathe.

Tackling traffic management adequately would hence address two fundamental issues: air quality and our clogged roads.

I do not dispute that improving the road network eases the flow of traffic. However, it has to be stressed that this is only a short-term measure. Adjusting the roundabout at Manwel Dimech Street in Qormi or the traffic lanes close to the airport or constructing flyovers at Kappara and Marsa will address and rationalise traffic movement now.

However, this further development of the road infrastructure is simply an encouragement for more cars to use our roads. It is only a matter of time when it will be the turn of the new developments to burst at the seams.

The present state of affairs is the direct result of the long-term neglect of transport policy. Public transport – as well as alternative means of transport – has been given the cold shoulder for far too long.

We require a transport policy that actively encourages the reduction of the number of vehicles on the road. Having around 800 cars on the road for every one thousand people in a small country is ridiculous. The small distances between localities in Malta and Gozo should make it much easier to encourage a reduction in dependence on the privately-owned car. Initiatives can be taken on a local level as well as between neighbouring localities. In such instances, it can be much easier to encourage the use of bicycles or the use of public transport or even to walk short distances: our health will surely benefit.

Isn’t it about time that we claim back ownership of our streets? We need more pedestrianised streets inaccessible to cars at any time of the day in every locality in Malta and Gozo. More streets need to be traffic-free, safe for children and parents to walk to school and back. We also need wider pavements for the use of pedestrians (not for tables and chairs to service catering establishments).

In the 2016 Budget speech, Finance Minister Edward Scicluna announced that, during 2017, government entities should be finalising sustainable transport plans. In the coming weeks these should be made public and, as a result, we expect that all government entities will commence addressing the mobility requirements of their employees and their customers. If carried out properly, this exercise could also impact on the private sector thereby (hopefully) substantially reducing a substantial number cars from our roads at peak times. In turn, this could have a considerable impact on public transport because with fewer cars on the roads, it should be more efficient.

Concurrently, government should also address the proposal to electrify the whole private transport sector through banning petrol and diesel cars from our roads, after a reasonable transition, and switching over to cars running on electricity. In Malta, this proposal was launched as part of Alternattiva Demokratika’s 2017 election manifesto. Since then, it has also been taken up by the French and UK governments. Removing petrol and diesel cars from our roads would substantially improve the quality of the air we breathe in all our localities and consequently in the long term will contribute to a considerable reduction of respiratory ailments.

This is the only way forward by which traffic is brought under serious control simultaneously ensuring sustainable mobility and improving the quality of our air.

 

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 10 September 2017

Skola taċ-Chiswick f’Pembroke ma tagħmilx sens

L-applikazzjoni tal-ippjanar biex tkun effettivament trasferita l-iskola taċ-Chiswick mill-Kappara għal Pembroke tiftaħ kapitlu ġdid fl-opposizzjoni għall-oxxenitajiet tal-ippjanar li qed ifaqqsu madwarna kuljum. L-art proposta mhiex barra miż-żona tal-iżvilupp (ODZ). Fil-fatt is-sit identifikat għall-iżvilupp propost b’kejl ta’ 15,900 metru kwadru qiegħed fiż-żona tal-iżvilupp.

Għalfejn għandna nopponu din il-proposta? Hemm numru ta’ raġunijiet għaliex din l-applikazzjoni ta’ żvilupp għandha tkun abortita, illum qabel għada.

Daqqa t’għajn lejn il-Pjan Lokali li nirreferu għalih bħala North Harbours Local Plan (li jikkonċerna ukoll lill-Pembroke) jagħtina l-iktar raġun bażika l-għaliex din l-applikazzjoni l-anqas biss kellha tkun ippreżentata. L-art li ġiet identifikata, tifforma parti minn art ikbar li l-Pjan Lokali, li kien approvat fl-2006, jidentifika bħala li għandha tkun soġġetta għal eżerċizzju ta’ ippjanar metikoluż u li dwarha għandu joħroġ dokument imsejjaħ Pembroke Development Brief. Fil-pjanta intitolata Pembroke Policy Map li qed tidher ma dan l-artiklu, l-art in kwistjoni hi mdawra b’ċirku aħmar.

Il-Pjan Lokali jispjega b’mod ċar l-iskop li għandu jintlaħaq mill-Pembroke Development Brief, li s’issa għadu ma ġiex ippubblikat għall-konsultazzjoni pubblika.

L-ebda wieħed mill-oġġettivi stabbiliti mill-Pjan Lokali għall-Pembroke Development Brief Area ma jittratta dwar skejjel jew edukazzjoni. L-erba’ oġġettivi msemmija fil-fatt jittrattaw użu li jiġġenera impiegi ta’ natura mhux industrijali, użu assoċjat mat-tgawdija tal-ħin ħieles, Ċentru Lokali u qasam residenzjali privat. Meta l-Pembroke Development Brief ikun ippubbikat għall-konsultazzjoni pubblika għandu jippreżenta gwida dettaljata dwar kif dawn l-oġġettivi għandhom jintlaħqu.

Il-Pjan Lokali jistabilixxi ukoll l-obbligi ta’ l-ippjanar li għandhom ikunu ndirizzati mill-Pembroke Development Brief. Dawn huma: 1. titjib komprensiv tal-infrastruttura, 2. li l-inħawi (ta’ Pembroke) ikunu pprovduti b’aċċess aħjar għat-trasport pubbliku, 3. titjib tas-sistema tat-toroq fil-lokalitá b’mod partikolari kif it-toroq li jagħtu għal Triq Reġjonali jaqdu liż-żona fejn hemm l-iskejjel, 4. Il-kostruzzjoni ta’ triq bejn Triq Reġjonali u s-sit li jkopri l-Pembroke Development Brief, u dan flimkien ma titjib lis-sistema tat-toroq arterjali u lokali li jirriżulta neċessarju wara studju dwar l-impatt tat-trasport, 5. titjib f’St. Patrick’s Park u 6. titjib tal-ispazji miftuħa .

Hu ċar li l-proposta għal skola ġdida fi Triq Gabriele Henin kantuniera ma Triq il-Mediterranean Pembroke ma tirriżultax mill-Pjan Lokali applikabbli, anzi hi f’kunflitt miegħu. Allura għalfejn l-Awtoritá tal-Ippjanar qed tippermetti li din l-applikazzjoni tibqa’ pendenti? Ma jkunx aħjar kieku l-awtoritá tikkonkludi l-eżami ta’ din l-applikazzjoni bla telf ta’ żmien meta hu ċar li tmur kontra dak li jipprovdi l-Pjan Lokali? Meta l-affarijiet huma daqshekk ċari għalfejn id-dewmien meta setgħet tingħata tweġiba definittiva f’ħames minuti? Meta timxi b’dan il-mod l-Awtoritá tal-Ippjanar tagħti l-messaġġ li l-Pjan Lokali l-anqas jiswa’ l-karta li hu stampat fuqha!

L-iskola taċ-Chiswick li presentement qegħda fil-Kappara, tul is-snin kellha impatt mhux żgħir fuq il-kwalitá tal-ħajja tar-residenti tal-Kappara. Jekk l-iskola tiċċaqlaq lejn Pembroke dawn il-problemi kollha jkun esportati lejn Pembroke biex jiżdiedu ma dawk tal-iskejjel li diġa hemm f’dik il-lokalitá. Ċertament din l-iskola pproġettata mhux ser ittejjeb il-kwalitá tal-ħajja tar-residenti ta’ Pembroke: anzi tkompli titfagħhom lura.

L- Awtoritá tal-Ippjanar għandha responsabbiltá li tħares lir-residenti ta’ Pembroke u li tkun t-tarka tagħhom huma u jitqabdu biex itejbu l-kwalitá tal-ħajja tagħhom.

Huwa importanti mhux biss li jkollna deċiżjonijiet tajba, imma ukoll li dawn ma jdumux ma jittieħdu iktar milli meħtieġ. Għax l-iskola taċ-Chiswick f’Pembroke ma tagħmilx sens.

Imma, sfortunatament mal- Awtoritá tal-Ippjanar qatt ma taf fejn int.

ippubblikat f’Illum : 13 t’Awwissu 2017

Proposed Chiswick Pembroke school is a non-starter

The planning application to effectively transfer Chiswick School from Kappara to Pembroke opens a new chapter in opposing land-use planning atrocities which seem to sprout every other day. The site proposed for development, measuring 15,900 square metres is not Outside the Development Zone (ODZ). In fact it is within scheme.

So why oppose the proposal? There are a number of reasons why this planning application, even though just an outline application at this stage, should be aborted, the soonest the better.

A cursory look at the North Harbours Local Plan (which deals with Pembroke in addition to a number of other areas) gives a very clear basic reason why this application should not even have been submitted. The selected site forms part of a larger area which the Local Plan, approved in 2006, identifies as the Pembroke Development Brief Area. The site, circled on the Pembroke Policy Map shown on this page, is subject to Local Plan Policy NHPE 09 which policy explains in detail the objectives that the Pembroke Development Brief should aim at when published for public consultation.

None of the objectives listed in the Local Plan for the Pembroke Development Brief Area involves schools or education. In fact, the four specified objectives are: non-industrial employment generating uses of a national/regional catchment area, leisure uses, a Local Centre and private sector housing. The Pembroke Development Brief, when drafted and published for public consultation, should present detailed guidance as to how these objectives will be attained.

The Local Plan also establishes that key planning obligations of development within the Pembroke Development Brief Area will include: 1. a comprehensive infrastructural improvement; 2. the provision of better access to the area by public transport; 3. the upgrading of the existing Regional Road Junction that serves Suffolk Road and the schools area; 4. the construction of the link road from this junction to the Pembroke Development Brief Site, and other improvements to the arterial and local road network deemed appropriate through the recommendations of a Transport Impact Statement (TIS); 5. the upgrading of St. Patrick’s Park and 6. the upgrading of open spaces.

It is clear that the proposal for a new school as proposed in Gabriele Henin Street corner with Mediterranean Street Pembroke does not feature in the provisions of the North Harbours Local Plan. So why has the Planning Authority permitted this application to proceed so far? Should it not have submitted an immediate recommendation for refusal on the grounds of a clear and unequivocal conflict with the provisions of the North Harbours Local Plan? Why does the Planning Authority procrastinate when it could have given a clear and definite answer within five minutes and thereby transmit a clear message that when push comes to shove, the Local Plans are worth the paper they are printed on?

Over the years, Chiswick School, currently in Kappara has had a negative impact on the daily lives of Kappara residents. Exporting these problems to another area will not serve any positive purpose. It will only make the lives of Pembroke residents – already struggling to cope with the impact of the large number of schools already in their area – more miserable.

The Planning Authority owes a duty of care to Pembroke residents. Acting expeditiously is as important as acting correctly. It is clear that the proposed Chiswick School at Pembroke is a non-starter. But over the years I have learnt one thing: with the Planning Authority you never know where you stand.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 13 August 2017