Ignoring residents and their local councils

strait street valletta 2

 

Government has published a consultation document dealing with the use of open public spaces by catering establishments, entitled Guidelines on Outdoor Catering Areas on Open Public Space : a holistic approach to creating an environment of comfort and safety.

This document was launched earlier this week at a press conference addressed by the Minister for Tourism Edward Zammit Lewis and the Parliamentary Secretary responsible for planning and simplification of administrative processes Michael Falzon.

The inter-Ministerial committee set up by government to draft the policy document was limited to representatives of the Ministry of the Interior, MEPA, Transport Malta, the Government Property Division, the Malta Tourism Authority and the Association of Hotels and Restaurants (MHRA). Representatives of the local councils were excluded from participating.

It seems that when the matter was being considered by Cabinet, the Minister for Local Councils Owen Bonnici was fast asleep as otherwise he would undoubtedly have drawn the attention of his colleagues that the Local Councils Act, in article 33, deems it a function of local councils “to advise and, where applicable, be consulted by, any authority empowered to take any decisions directly or indirectly affecting the Council and the residents it is responsible for”.

Surely the use of public open spaces by catering establishments is a matter which is of considerable interest to local councils as it affects both the councils and the residents they represent. Yet the government has a different opinion as representatives of local councils were not invited at the drawing board where the guidelines on the use of public open spaces by catering establishments were being drafted.

The guidelines introduce a one stop shop at MEPA, thereby eliminating the need to apply for around four other permits for the placing of tables and chairs in public open spaces. This would be a positive development if MEPA can take on board all the considerations which are normally an integral part of the four other application processes.

If the utilisation of public open spaces was limited to the squares in our towns and villages, I do not think that there would be any issue. There is sufficient space in such areas and using part of it for open air catering activities there would not be cause for concern.

However, problems will definitely arise in areas of mixed use, that is, areas where the ground floor is used commercially and the overlying areas are used as residences. This is a common occurrence in many of the localities where there is a high demand by the catering business for the utilisation of public open space. The guidelines, however, ignore the impacts which placing chairs and tables at street level could have on the residents in such areas, in particular those living in the floors immediately above ground level. Such impacts would primarily be the exposure of residents to secondary cigarette/tobacco smoke as well as noise and odours. The issue of noise will undoubtedly arise, in particular during siesta time, as well as late into the evenings while secondary smoke from cigarettes/tobacco as well as odours will be an ever present nuisance. Maybe if the local councils were not excluded from the inter-Ministerial Committee, these matters would have been taken into consideration.

In such instances it would be necessary to limit the placing of tables and chairs at such a distance from residences where impacts on residents from secondary smoke, noise and odours are insignificant: that is if there is sufficient space.

The guidelines establish that a passageway of 1.50 metres on pavements is to be reserved for pedestrians. In addition they establish that where a permit is requested to place chairs and tables outside third-party property, specific clearance in front of doors and windows is to be observed. Isn’t that thoughtful of the inter-Ministerial Committee? Instead of categorically excluding the placing of chairs and tables along the property of third parties it seeks to facilitate the creation of what would inevitably be a nuisance to the users of such a property. This, too, is the result of the lop-sided composition of the inter-Ministerial Committee.

Nor are parking spaces spared. The inter-Ministerial Committee makes provision in the proposed guidelines for the possibility that catering establishments can also make use of parking spaces for the placing of tables and chairs when other space is insufficient. The guidelines leave no stone unturned in ensuring that tables and chairs get priority, even though this is worded in terms that make it appear that it would be an exception.

Enforcement, as usual, will be another headache. We already have quite a number of cases in various localities where passageways are minimal or inexistent and pedestrians, excluded from walking along the pavement have to move along with the traffic, right in the middle of the road. At times this may prove quite difficult and dangerous, in particular for wheelchair users or in the case of parents with small children. Enforcement to date is practically inexistent and I do not think that matters will change much in this respect.

Unfortunately, MEPA is a repeat offender in ignoring the interests of the residential community when faced with all types of development. The guidelines on the use of public open space by catering establishments are thus more of the same.

While cars have taken over our roads, catering establishments will now be guided on how to take over our pavements and open spaces, parking included!

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday – 13 September 2015  

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Reflections on an Environment Policy

The current debate on what should form part of a National Environment Policy is a healthy exercise. It is focusing not only on the different aspirations of each citizen but also on the role of each one of the towns and villages which together constitute this country.

The environmental issues we face are the result of the manner we organise our lives both individually and as a community. In fact it can be safely stated that the manner in which economic activity has been organised throughout time has created different environmental and social impacts.

The exercise at this point in time is hence the clear identification of these impacts and subsequently seeking the best manner in which they can be tackled. This is done on two fronts: firstly through the formulation of an environment policy and secondly by integrating this environment policy with economic and social policy within the National Strategy for Sustainable Development (NSSD).

The NSSD has already been formulated and approved by Cabinet almost three years ago after a long process of consultation. It established targets and objectives which have unfortunately been ignored by the same Government which has approved them. This necessarily leads to the conclusion that these exercises can be a waste of time as their only purpose seems to be an exercise to prove that the new hands on deck can do things in a better way than those they have replaced. 

The National Environment Policy Issues Paper identifies a number of areas which are to be tackled but excludes a number of important ones. What is in my view objectionable and bordering on the insulting is the ignoring by the Issues Paper of the NSSD. It also ignores matters which have been tackled by the NSSD as well as the specific targets identified. This the NSSD did after extensive consultation with civil society, which the Issues Paper promises to go through again.

 

Eco-taxation

One such case refers to the use of economic instruments to attain environmental objectives. The Issues Paper queries whether and to what extent there is agreement  with the use of such instruments to further environmental objectives. Simultaneously with the publication of the Issues Paper, Finance Minister Tonio Fenech through the pre-budget document was lauding the idea of introducing a carbon tax and the possible utilisation of the proceeds to affect a tax shift. This is in the spirit of the former EU Commission President  (French Socialist) Jacques Delors’ 1993 EU White Paper entitled “On growth, competitiveness and employment. The challenges and ways forward into the 21st century”.

So whilst the Environment Ministry is requesting our opinion on the use of eco-taxation (and other instruments) it seems that the Finance Ministry is dead-set to proceed.  Do these two Ministries form part of the same government? 

Both the Environment Ministry and the Finance Ministry would do well to go back in time to the debate on the introduction of the eco-contribution (2003-05) where they could identify a number of issues raised by civil society.

Should fiscal objectives be the purpose of environmental taxation or would it rather be environmental improvement? All over the globe governments declare that their aim in applying eco-taxation is environmental improvement. Yet they resist transferring political responsibility for environmental taxation from the Finance Ministry to the Environment Ministry. Such a move would lend credence to statements on the environmental objectives of eco-taxation and would ensure that the design of specific measures is more in line with encouraging changes in behaviour. Retaining political responsibility for environmental taxation at the Finance Ministry on the other hand signifies that the objective is to tax behaviour but not  to change it. This reluctance is generally reflected in the manner  in which eco-taxes are designed. Fiscal policy makers pay attention to the fact that changing behaviour would mean drying up a source of revenue. Hence eco-taxes designed for fiscal objectives are intended not to affect the elasticity of demand. This is done by selecting items in respect of which there are no alternatives and thus irrespective of tax added to the price there is no alternative to purchasing the product or service. The eco-contribution exercise clearly illustrates this argument.

 

Environmental nuisance 

The Issues Paper has failed to project an understanding that environmental issues can be most effectively tackled at a micro-level. In fact the Issues Paper adopts an exclusively macro approach and does not give any weight to the real life issues. Issues of environmental nuisance are the ones which the man in the street feels strongly about. These include primarily noise, air quality and odour nuisance caused by neighbours in residential areas. They could range from an air conditioner fixed below your bedroom window to a neighbour’s fireplace chimney spewing smoke right into your living room or a bakery belching black smoke onto your washing line. Or the newly opened restaurant or snack bar in a transformed ground floor flat whose operator wouldn’t care less about where the odours from his kitchen end up.    

Information

Access to environmental information is an important aspect of environment policy. Yet the drafters of the Issues Paper ignored it. The environmental information aspects of the Åarhus Convention have been incorporated into Maltese legislation as a direct result of Malta’s EU accession. This legislation provides a mechanism through which the citizen requests the release of information which up till then would be withheld by the authorities. This is a very primitive form of governance. The state should release information without having its hand forced to do it. This is the minimum required in an age of transparency and accountability. 

Policy proposals and other initiatives must be buttressed by studies which not only justify the proposal or initiative but which also identify the resulting impacts and the manner in which these can be addressed. Studies must be published at an early stage and not in the final stages of a discussion. Otherwise the public debate cannot be fruitful.

Transparency and accountability

Transparency and accountability are not only duties of the state. They are also a responsibility of private enterprise.  Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) reporting is one way in which private enterprise informs the public on its activities. It is a function as important as financial reporting. Financial reporting having been accepted by society for quite a long time as a reporting requirement.

In Malta currently two companies publish a CSR report. Vodafone (Malta) and Bank of Valletta (BOV) have already published two editions of their CSR report. There has been considerable improvement in the information made available by Vodafone (Malta) in its second report, but BOV’s reporting  can be substantially improved.

The environment policy should identify the type of organisations that should have the duty to report publicly and on a regular basis on their environmental and other impacts. By organisations I understand not just industry and business but also public corporations, government departments and local authorities. A reasonable first step would be for companies quoted on the stock exchange to take the lead followed by public bodies such as Enemalta, Water Services Corporation, Heritage Malta and Air Malta.

CSR reporting should be guided by international standards such as the Global Reporting Initiative G3 guidelines and should be subject to auditing in order to verify that the statements made reflect what the organisation is really up to. 

Alternattiva Demokratika, AD, the Green Party in Malta has earlier this month published a document in reply to the National Environment Policy Issues Paper which lists and discusses the areas missed out by the said Issues Paper.  In addition to focusing on the urgent need to implement the NSSD, environment information, environmental nuisance and environment information it also points out the need to tackle the uptake of environmental management systems such as ISO 14001 and the Eco-Management and Audit Scheme (EMAS) Regulations of the European Union, light pollution, contaminated land, environmental and sustainability planning at a locality level better known as Local Agenda 21,  the role of civil society and environmental NGOs in environment policy and environment  research.  

We hope that when the environment policy is drafted it will include the widest possible list of issues and will tackle them in an holistic manner keeping in mind the parameters established in the National Sustainable Development Strategy.                 

Alternattiva Demokratika considers that environment policy is one of several instruments through which improvement in the quality of life can be attained. Protecting the environment signifies that we better our quality of life. It also signifies that each one of us acts in a responsible manner. However primarily it must be government which leading the way should act in an appropriate manner in order that it leads by example.

 published in

The Independent on Sunday, October 17, 2010, Environment Supplement

Micro-managing environment policy

Issues of environmental nuisance have so far not featured in the debate on the National Environment Policy. Odours would top the list of such nuisances. Consider industrial kitchens. The issue may arise in residential areas that have their ground floor used as a restaurant or a snack bar. This mixed use causes problems as can be attested to by residents in areas such as Buġibba, Qawra, Paceville and Marsascala. Odours are rarely adequately taken care of.

The issue also arises in the case of confectioners when manufacturing is carried out in a residential area. In terms of planning policy, it is possible to site such an activity within a residential area but it must be compatible with its surroundings. When the activity gets too large it is time to move out of the residential area to an alternative site where it belongs: an industrial estate.

A considerable amount of environmental nuisance is caused by noise.

Placing air-conditioning units in common shafts or backyards in residential properties close to someone’s bedroom is, without doubt, the cause of an environmental nuisance. This can cause problems, particularly in the case of maisonettes or flats if proper care is not exercised in identifying the right place for fixing the unit.

Retail outlets in residential areas, in particular those selling frozen foodstuffs and making use of industrial freezers, can also be the cause of nuisance if the noise-generating unit is not properly installed relative to overlying and/or adjacent residential units.

Chimneys in residential areas can cause environmental nuisance. Current policy establishes that the flue must be at least three metres higher than adjacent buildings. For normal domestic use this is generally sufficient to ensure dispersal of smoke emitted. Notwithstanding, problems sometimes occur due to changes in the height of buildings in the vicinity of existing flues, which, all of a sudden, render problematic a flue that has functioned without causing nuisance for ages!

Complaints are also encountered relative to the emissions of bakeries in residential areas. In most cases this state of affairs crops up due to the fact that some of these bakeries are housed in old structures in residential areas that have developed. The building height of part of the residential areas would be such that a number of residential units are normally situated at a height above the flue level.

This means that emissions go straight through the windows of residences. This is certainly not a pleasant experience.

Dust resulting from construction activity is another cause of environmental nuisance. This is an issue which the Construction Management Regulations of 2007 attempted to regulate but, so far, have failed to tackle adequately. The solution (reducing substantially construction dust) can only be attained gradually and is primarily dependent on improved work methods on sites of work and more attention to health and safety issues in the construction industry.

The problem also arises because the construction industry is primarily made up of non-unionised labour. A large proportion are small firms spread over a number of sites. Traditionally, these small units within the industry have not given sufficient importance to health and safety issues. On the other hand, most of the large construction firms are equipped to tackle issues of nuisance on site on both the environment front as well as on the health and safety front. Their complaint is that these measures increase their costs while others in the industry ignore their responsibilities.

Factories making/distributing products used in the building industry are also contributing to the dust problem as is evidenced by the Lija saga, which made the national headlines when Mabel Strickland instituted the first legal action on the matter over 40 years ago. The solution is simple yet expensive: Move all activities indoors in a controlled environment. The expense the industry has not incurred to date has been borne by the community through medication for various ailments: asthma and other allergies topping the list.

Some may consider issues of environmental nuisance as being minor in terms of policy. They are, however, what the environment means to the man in the street. At times impacts resulting from environmental nuisance are the only direct knowledge which Joe Bloggs has of environmental impacts. This requires micro-management of environment policy and is no less important than addressing issues of biodiversity, light pollution or corporate social responsibility.

I hasten to add that ensuring an appropriate micro-management of the environment may sensitise the community to move on and be interested in other important environmental impacts.

Think global but act local. Local communities through local councils can play an important role in identifying environmental nuisances and assisting in their solution. This would develop environmental policy at the grassroots and can help gradually in its acceptance on a much wider scale than at present.

published in the Times of Malta, Saturday October 2, 2010