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

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

Marsa: a planning mess

turkish-cemetry-marsa-malta2

The Chamber of Architects has taken the Planning Authority to task on the piecemeal local plan reviews that it has been churning out, one at a time. The latest tirade was with reference to a partial review of The Grand Harbour Local Plan (originally published in 2002) specifically with respect to a Marsa Park Site.

We have just concluded a public discussion on a Masterplan for Paceville, which was shredded by public opinion and sent back to the drawing board.

Earlier, we had the Planning Authority itself contesting whether Local Councils, NGOs and the Environment and Resources Authority  had a right to contest the decision to permit high-rises in Townsquare Sliema and in Imrieħel.

To make matters worse, instead of consolidating the environmental regulatory functions of the state, this government has opted to deliberately fragment them, thereby ensuring their reduced effectiveness by design.  In a small country such as Malta, it pays to have one consolidated authority  directed by environment professionals through whom land use planning responsibilities should be accountable.

Land use planning needs to be more focused but holistic in nature. The Chamber of Architects aptly makes the point that focusing the efforts of the partial review of the Grand Harbour Local Plan specifically on “a Marsa Business Park” without considering this within the context  of a much needed regeneration of Marsa would be a futile exercise. The decay of Marsa as an urban centre needs to be addressed at the earliest opportunity and this will not be done through piecemeal local plan reviews but through comprehensive planning “which ought to include community needs, road transport re-alignment, environment improvement and flooding mitigation measures”.

These are the basic issues which should be addressed by a local plan review concerning Marsa. Tackling major infrastructural and social problems facing the Marsa community should take precedence over any proposal for the redevelopment of the Marsa Park site. It is the whole of Marsa that should be addressed and not just one tiny corner.

The partial local plan review is ignoring the local community, just like its cousin the Paceville Masterplan did some months ago. Many years ago we learned that “planning is for people”. This seems to be no longer the case as, according to the Planning Authority, planning is apparently for business hubs, high-rises and, obviously, for developers. They seem to be very well connected, thereby ensuring that they occupy the first items of this government’s land use planning agenda.

Marsa has been forgotten over the years. With the closure of the Marsa power station now is the appropriate time to consider the various accumulated impacts on the Marsa community in order that an integrated approach to addressing them is identified. Planning is for people. That means that the Marsa community should be actively involved when these plans are being formulated, including at the drawing board stage. Land use planners should stimulate the Marsa community to speak up and involve itself in drawing up a blue print for its future.

The regeneration of Marsa is an urgent matter which should not be left unattended.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 15 January 2017

Tall Buildings : the advice ignored by the Maltese authorities

Ali report

 

“Tall buildings cannot be avoided in our times. The choice we have is whether to control them or else whether to put up with their future growth.” These were the concluding comments of a report drawn up by Professor Mir Ali from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign USA after a visit to Malta in 2008 during which he met with and advised MEPA on the future of tall buildings in Malta.The report is entitled Urban Design Strategy Report on Tall Buildings in Malta.

Professor Ali’s report contains recommendations most of which are as relevant today as when they were originally drafted. Central to these recommendations, way back in 2008, was the need to draw a master plan addressing tall buildings and their impacts. “Lack of a master plan,”  Professor Ali stated, “results in uncontrolled developments and unpredictable impacts on urban life.”  The developed master plan,  Prof. Ali emphasised, should be “for Malta as a whole and for the selected sites for tall buildings, individually.”  Drawing up such a master plan with a reasonable level of detail will take time to carry out, a considerable portion of which should be utilised in consultation, primarily with the residents to be impacted. Certainly much more time would be required than the November 2016 target indicated by the government earlier this week.  A moratorium on the issuing of any development permit for high-rises until such time that a master plan has been discussed and approved would be a very reasonable course of action.

Professor Ali considered six sites, which were indicated to him by MEPA, as having the potential of hosting high-rise development. He proposed the following rank order : Qawra, Gżira, Tignè, Paceville, Pembroke and Marsa.  Such a ranking order by Prof. Ali is qualified by an emphasis on the substantial infusion of public monies which is required. Prof. Ali commented that if the number of sites are reduced to less than six it would be much better for Malta.

Professor Ali made a number of incisive remarks.

There is a need for an objective market and feasibility study for each project, which study should include the life cycle cost of the project. In view of the high vacancy rate of existing residential units, Prof. Ali queried the kind of occupancy expected of high-rises. Failure of high-rises will impact the economy of the whole of Malta which has no safety valve because of its size and lack of adequate elasticity, he stressed.

An efficient public transport is a fundamental requirement for the Maltese islands irrespective of whether high-rises are developed or not. But for the success of tall buildings “an integrated sustainable public transport system” is absolutely necessary. Yet, surprise, surprise, Professor Ali observed that “there is no efficient public transport system that is efficient and that covers the whole of Malta”

Sounds like familiar territory!

Infrastructural deficiencies must be addressed. If the existing infrastructure is inadequate or in a state of disrepair it must be upgraded and expanded to meet future needs. Tignè residents in Sliema have much to say about the matter, not just with reference to the state of the roads in the area but more on the present state of the public sewers! Residents of the Tignè peninsula are not the only ones who urgently require an upgrade of their infrastructural services. Residents in many other localities have similar requirements.

Social and environmental impacts of tall buildings must be considered thoroughly at the design stage. However Maltese authorities have developed the habit of ignoring the social impacts of development projects. In addition, it is very worrying that, as reported in the press earlier during this week,  Prime Minister Joseph Muscat does not seem to be losing any sleep over the matter.

People living in a low-rise environment consider high-rises as intrusive. Unless public participation is factored in at a very early stage through planned beneficial impacts on the community in terms of economic benefits, upgrade of services and the general benefits of the redevelopment of the surroundings, such projects do not have a future.

The upkeep of high-rises is quite a challenge which requires skills that are different from low-rise buildings. Notwithstanding changes to the relevant provisions of the law, there already exist serious difficulties in bringing together owners of low-rise multi-owned properties in order that they can ensure that maintenance of such properties is addressed. The challenge of high-rises is exponentially more complex.

The above is a snap-shot of Prof. Ali’s report. From what I’ve heard from a number  of people who met Professor Ali, he was more vociferous in his verbal utterances. Unfortunately,  his advice has been largely ignored.

 

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday – 26 June 2016

Dom: a giant surrounded by pygmies

Much has been written in the past days on Dom Mintoff. On his service to the nation. On his values. On his methods. On his achievements.

In what we write we ought to be respectful. Not just to Dom, the man and his memory. We must also respect  ourselves. We must be factual.

We cannot respect the man  if we have no self respect!

His first positive contribution was in the development of the tools of  social solidarity,  determined to ensure that all had access to the basic essentials. He did this initially with Sir Paul Boffa his predecessor as Labour Leader. It was Boffa who laid the foundations of the welfare state through the introduction of Old Age Pensions and Income Tax to finance them!  Years earlier Boffa had prodded Gerald Strickland through the Compact to construct St Luke’s Hospital.  Boffa has been sidelined in the past 50 years when in reality it was he who should get the credit for founding the welfare state in Malta. Dom built on Boffa’s solid foundations, widening and deepening social services in the process.

His second positive was his determination that independence be translated into Maltese absolute control of the islands and their strategic infrastructure. This contrasted with Borg Olivier’s more gradual approach.  His negotiations shocked the nation as it was the first time that a Maltese politician stood up and spoke what they had in mind. In his last mass meeting before the 1971 general elections, held  at Marsa,  Mintoff had stated in very clear terms what he had in mind. It was time for Britain to pay up or pack up.

Lord Carrington then Defence Secretary in Edward Heath’s Cabinet states in his memoirs that negotiating with Dom was tough business. He realised “that there was also calculation in every Mintoff mood.”  Mintoff’s moods noted Carrington, would alternate “between periods of civilised charm and spasms of strident and hysterical abuse.”

Dom also opened a third front. He rightly felt the need for a separation of Church and State. It was, and still is  an area which requires much attention. It was much worse 50 years ago with an unelected archbishop-prince wielding political power unwittingly aiding  the colonial masters. Divide and rule was the British policy in its colonies. This front has been the cause of various scars (political and social), still not sufficiently healed.  It was violence from unexpected quarters which multiplied the political problems which each government has had to tackle since.

In his endeavours Dom was undoubtedly influenced by his direct experiences.  His witnessing of abject poverty during his childhood, his youth and immediate post war years formed his vision for developing the welfare state which had been painfully plotted by Sir Paul Boffa.

Having a foreign power controlling any square metre of significance on the islands was too much to bear for someone with Dom’s temperament. His father’s employment in the service of Lord Louis Mountbatten undoubtedly added to the significance of it all and to his determination to make a clean sweep.

It would be dishonest to ignore the above.

It would be however similarly dishonest to ignore the fact that his stewardship was also characterised by arrogance and bullying. It was characterised by organs of the state which sought to protect abusive behaviour. The long list of cases wherein Dom’s government and his most trusted Ministers were found guilty of infringing human rights is there for all to see. None of them was ever forced to resign. This is also part of Dom’s contribution to the development of  post 1964 Malta.

Anyone ever tried to identify the number of victims, some with a one way ticket to l-Addolorata Cemetery?

Former Air Malta chairman Albert Mizzi in an interview carried in The Sunday Times on March 25, 2012 stated: “I remember one time when someone mentioned something to him about corruption. He turned to me and said, ‘is it true?’ I replied: ‘That what’s people are saying’. His response was: ‘What can I do if that person has helped me to build up the party? Can I take action against him?’ You see, this is small Malta.”

That is Dom, the giant surrounded by pygmies: those who helped him build his party and then proceeded to squeeze it dry until the pips squealed.

Respecting Dom also means self-respect. Respect  the facts.  When this is done we can give the man his due.

originally published at di-ve.com

On this blog you can read the following additional posts on Dom MINTOFF :

21st August 2012 : Dom’s legacy

21st August 2012 : Dom Mintoff

22nd June 2012 : Dom Mintoff fuq in-Net TV.

5th May 2012 : Dom Mintoff : a political bully.

23rd April 2012 : Thanks O Lord for giving us DOM.

1st April 2012: Should we thank Dom?

Il-Kunsilli Lokali : qed nagħtu kas tagħhom ?

 

Nhar is-Sibt kien ta’pjaċir għalija li nindirizza l-laqgha plenarja tal-Kunsilliera Lokali li tkun organizzata kull sena mill-Assoċjazzjoni tal-Kunsilli Lokali. Din is-sena din il-laqgħa saret fil-Lukanda Corinthia ġewwa Ħ’Attard.

Osservajt illi fid-dokument konsultattiv tal-Istrateġija Nazzjonali dwar l-adattament għall-Impatti tal-Klima l-Kunsilli Lokali la jissemmew u l-anqas jidher li hemm rwol maħsub għalihom.

Meta nqiesu illi uħud mill-impatti tal-klima jolqtu direttament lill-lokalitajiet dan jistona. Ġibt l-eżempju tal-kapaċita tal-infrastruttura tat-toroq tagħna li tilqa’ għal bidla fl-intensita’ u l-frekwenza tax-xita.  Xi ħaġa li naraw b’għajnejna ta’ spiss, kull meta jkollna maltempata mhux tas-soltu kif kellna reċentement.

Għad hawn awtoritajiet u kummissjonijiet maħtura mill-Gvern li m’humiex konxji biżżejjed tar-rwol importanti li għandhom il-Kunsilli Lokali. Din il-Kummissjoni dwar il-Klima hi waħda minnhom.

F’Birżebbuġa per eżempju kellu jkun l-intervent tas-Segretarju Parlmentari Chris Said biex il-MEPA tieqaf min-negozjati  li kienet għaddejja mal-Port Ħieles dwar il-kundizzjonijiet ta’ permess ambjentali. Dan sar minħabba li dawn in-negozjati kienu għaddejjin mingħajr l-involviment tal-Kunsill Lokali ta’ Birżebbuġa. Issa li l-Kunsill ġie involut in-negozjati bdew mill-ġdid u qed jiġu ndirizzati issues li qabel mhux neċessarjament li kienu qed jitqiesu bl-istess profondita’.

Hemm iżda eżempji oħra li jixhdu illi mhux il-Kunsilli Lokali kollha huma impenjati bl-istess mod.

Meta l–MEPA ħarget il-permess għall-inċineratur tal-biċċerija il-Kunsilli Lokali tal-Marsa u r-Raħal Ġdid ġew mogħtija id-dritt li a spejjes tal-Wasteserve jistabilixxu sistema alternattva għall-monitoraġġ tal-arja fl-inħawi, kif ukoll d-dritt l jqabbdu espert li jgħinhom biex jifhmu l-informazzjoni li tkun ippubblikata dwar l-emissjonijiet. Il-parti relevanti tal-permess fil-fatt tgħid hekk :

”   1.3.2     Public access to emission data (most recent half hour average values and daily average values plus results from the most recent discontinuous measurements) shall be enabled via Internet.

1.3.3     The Marsa and Paola Local Councils may, jointly and in agreement with MEPA, establish an independent ambient air monitoring system covering particulate matter, nitrogen oxides and sulphur oxides, as well as any other parameters that may be agreed with MEPA, at the expense of the permit holder.

1.3.4     The Marsa and Paola Local Councils may, in agreement with MEPA, jointly appoint an independent expert to assist in the interpretation of the emission data made publicly available pursuant to condition 1.3.2.”

Huwa ċar mill-kritika li ssir għall-operazzjoni ta’ dan l-inċineratur illi dawn iż-żewġ Kunsilli Lokali għadhom m’humiex konxji minn dan id-dritt li għandhom u s’issa jidher li m’għamlux użu minnu.

Jidher illi hemm bżonn illi l-Assoċjazzjoni tal-Kunsilli Lokali tgħin lil dawn il-Kunsilli Lokali u oħrajn bħalhom biex jiżviluppaw il-kapaċita tagħhom biex ikunu jistgħu jkunu ta’ servizz aħjar.

Żjara minn AD fl-inċineratur tal-Marsa

 marsa-incinerator

 

Dal-għodu delegazzjoni ta’ AD għamlet żjara fl-inċineratur tal-Marsa. L-istedina kienet saret mill-Ministru Pullicino waqt Bondi+ ta’ ħmistax ilu, nhar it-23 ta’ Frar 2009. L-istedina kont ilqajtha mill-ewwel.

 

Uffiċjali tal-Wastserv flimkien mat-tekniċi inkarigati ill-inċineratur tal-Marsa dawruna mal-faċilita u fissrulna l-mod kif dan jaħdem kif ukoll l-aġġustamenti li saru u li għad qed isiru fl-impjant.

 

L-inċineratur kien ippjanat biex jieħu skart iġġenerat mill-biċċerija. Imma iżjed tard l-idea ibidlet biex żdied ukoll skart kliniku kif ukoll skart industrijali.

 

L-ewwel mistoqsija : l-iskart kliniku jinkludi skart radjuattiv. It-tweġiba hi le. Imma fl-impjant hemm strumenti li bihom jista’ jiġi vverifikat jekk l-iskart kliniku jkunx jinkludi skart radjuattiv. Tweġiba : le. Imma huwa ppjanat li iktar tard ikun possibli li jsiru dawn il-verifiki qabel ma jiġi aċċettat l-iskart kliniku.

 

 

 

Qabel iż-żjara min-naħa ta’ AD għamilna l-verifiki neċessarji u rriżulta li lejn tmiem il-ġimgħa fuq is-sit elettroniku tal-Wasteserv kienu ippubblikati r-riżultati tal-emissjonijiet sa Jannar 2009. Il-mistoqsija tiġi waħedha : skond il-permess hemm l-obbligu ta’ pubblikazzjoni tal-emissjonijiet fi zmien tletin minuta. It-tweġiba : imma l-impjant għadu m’huwiex ikkummissjonat u allura l-obbligu ta’ pubblikazzjoni immedjata għad ma daħalx fis-seħħ. L-uffiċjali tal-Wasteserv ikomplu jispjegaw li r-riżultati jdumu ma jkunu ppubblikati minħabba li jkunu għand il-konsulenti Taljani għall-verifika u għand it-Taljani jdumu.

 

Min-naħa ta’ AD ma naqblux : il-permess ma jiddistingwix bejn jekk l-impjant huwiex ikkummissjonat jew le. Jirregola l-operat tiegħu il-ħin kollu.

 

F’isem AD hawnhekk għamilt suggeriment : li Wasteserve timpenja ruħha li tibda tnaqqas iż-żmien bejn meta jitkejjlu l-emissjonijiet u meta jkunu ppubblikati. Bħalissa dan iż-żmien hu twil (madwar 4 xhur) u jista’ jitnaqqas faċilment għal mhux iktar minn xahar. Wara kollox sa l-aħħar tas-sena, meta huwa ippjanat li jkun ikkummissjonat l-impjant ir-riżultati jridu jkunu ppubblikat mill-ewwel.

 

Tal-Wasteserv ma kienux konvinti li dan hu possibli u jsemmu elf raġuni : fuq quddiem nett it-Taljani li jdumu.

 

Imma dan jista’ jsir. Hu fl-interess ta’ kulħadd li jsir, l-ewwel u qabel kollox fl-interess tal-komunita. Il-konsulent tal-Wasteserv joħroġ ftit għonqu ukoll : jgħid li dak li qed titlob Alternattiva huwa possibli li jsir mingħajr wisq diffikulta.

  

 

Wara ż-żjara kellimna lill-istampa.