Tourism: reflections on the Deloitte report

The Malta Hotels and Restaurants Association (MHRA) has just published a report entitled Carrying Capacity Study for Tourism in the Maltese Islands which report has been drawn up by its consultants Deloitte and financed primarily by EU funds.

A point which made the headlines, resulting from the said report, is relative to the availability of tourism accommodation, including touristic development which is still in the pipeline. Over the next five years, the report says, there is a significant risk of an over-supply in the expected accommodation growth. Various media reports have emphasised that as a result of the projected supply of touristic accommodation, close to 5 million tourists would be required (at an average 80 per cent occupancy throughout the year) to ensure the sector’s long-term profitability. Such an influx of tourists, definitely, cannot be handled by the country.

This is definitely the result of an lack of adequate land use planning. Unfortunately, the Planning Authority has continuously encouraged a free-for-all, particularly through the relaxation of various planning policies applicable to touristic accommodation. In fact, Tony Zahra, MHRA President, has been quoted as saying that we do not have a “Planning Authority” but a “Permitting Authority”.  For once, he is quite obviously right.

Unfortunately, this attitude of the Planning Authority is not limited to the touristic sector: it is spread throughout the islands relative to all types of development. It is an attitude which has contributed considerably towards “overcrowding, overdevelopment and uglification” which the Deloitte report groups together as being the contributors to the poor urban environment which impacts both residents and tourists indiscriminately!

An interesting point made by the Deloitte report is that the tourist sector is continuously decreasing in importance as the provider of employment opportunities for Maltese residents. In fact, the report states that, in 2009, 82 per cent of those employed in the tourism sector were Maltese. By 2019 this had decreased to 40.6 per cent. A staggering decrease in excess of 50 per cent!  The report does not offer any specific explanation for this. Reliance on poor remuneration of seasonal and part-time labour is a most obvious contributor to the situation. Its correction would inevitably cut the tourism sector down in size and consequently increase the problem of over-supply! The Deloitte report is generally silent about this basic flaw.

The quality of the touristic product is impacted considerably not only by the poor urban environment, which is getting progressively worse. It is also negatively impacted by the exponential increase in traffic and litter. Deloitte also identify the lack of product authenticity as a contributor to the decreasing quality of the touristic product. This is the result of the lack of Maltese working in the sector!

The report also hints at turismophobia. It records the preoccupation of those residing in touristic areas. They are less enthusiastic about tourism when compared to those living in other areas which are not in continuous contact with the tourist.

This ties in with a study carried out by academics at the University of Malta, Lino Briguglio and Marie Avellino, who, in a paper published in 2020 and entitled Has over-tourism reached the Maltese Islands?had pointed out the need for a tourism policy which focuses on mitigating its negative impacts. 

Tourism is not an activity that happens in a vacuum. It takes place in a community of persons, who should be assured that their quality of life is not impacted negatively as a result of the experience.

Tourism is not just about the numbers of tourists who visit, or the millions of euro spent or its contribution to the Gross National Product: it is also about our quality of life.

The profitability to be addressed should not be limited to financial parameters. As tourism is not just about the tourist: it is about each one of us.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday: 2 October 2022

Overdevelopment is eating up open space

The problems being caused by the continuous overdevelopment around us is a direct consequence of the local plans approved in 2006. The rationalisation exercise which was approved practically simultaneously, and as a result of which around two million square metres of ODZ land was given up for development made matters considerably worse .

The latest example is the planning application relative to a stretch of land measuring 1273 square metres in Santa Luċija. This land is, until now, an open space within the locality of Santa Luċija.

The late architect Joseph M.Spiteri, who in the late 1950s designed the locality of Santa Luċija from scratch took great care in planning for the needs of a community when he was preparing giving birth to the Santa Luċija locality. As emphasised by his son Dr Stephen C. Spiteri in the publication entitled Joseph M. Spiteri: A Maltese Architect and his work, when designing Santa Luċija, Joe Spiteri ensured that there was plenty of open space and trees. In his ideas Spiteri was undoubtedly influenced by the then prevalent housing design in the United Kingdom: Spiteri placed great emphasis on pedestrianisation and vehicular segregation together with the availability of plenty of open spaces. Environmentalists are still emphasising these points as an essential prerequisite for sustainable living.

The ideas pioneered by Architect Joseph Spiteri in Santa Luċija as a result of which open space around residential areas was considered as an essential contributor to enhancing the quality of life of all were unfortunately discarded over the years in housing design in the Maltese islands. Instead, we were offered intensive development of land aimed at maximising profits along the whole building development chain. Our quality of life was exchanged with healthy bank accounts.

The creation of an environment conducive to the creation of a sustainable living space has unfortunately been abandoned. The objective to be in harmony with our surroundings was abandoned.

Architect Joe Spiteri and his colleagues at the then Public Works Department invested substantial energies in trying to create from scratch a land use planning system during the mid-1960s. With the assistance of advisors sent by the United Nations a forward-looking town and country planning Act was approved by Parliament in the late 60s only for it to be ignored by those who were entrusted with its implementation.

This is the root cause of the present malaise in local land use planning. All efforts made by dedicated professionals over the years were meticulously undermined.

The current proposed project in Santa Luċija subject to planning application PA5152/22 has to be seen within this context. It gobbles up land which the original design for Santa Luċija had earmarked as open space.  The open space is not wasteland but part of the essential lungs which the local community requires to breathe. Without it the community is deprived of an essential element of its community infrastructure.

The Ministry for the Environment is currently advocating the need for open public spaces. This rhetoric has however not been translated into tangible action as the Planning Authority is still encouraging a free-for-all building spree transforming existing open spaces into euro machines.

One of the major lessons of Covid-19 was the mental health impact on many in our urban areas who were constrained indoors. The lack of adequate public open spaces made matters worse during the Covid months.

Our urban areas have been left to develop on their own for quite too long. As a result, they have been guided by business-friendly or market-friendly authorities, producing the mess of an urban jungle we have to face every day. This is a mess resulting from political decisions which have ensured that profits repeatedly have a priority over people and their quality of life.

The Santa Luċija planning application PA5152/22 is the latest example of all this. The creation of a sustainable living space has once more been sacrificed on the altar dedicated to the euro-machine!

published on The Malta Independent on Sunday: 25 September 2022

In-negozjant tal-ikel Tork u sieħbu fin-negozju  

Il-mostru ta’ bini li approvat l-Awtorità tal-Ippjanar u li preżentement qed jinbena ħdejn il-kappella tal-Manikata kien ikkunsidrat li hu aċċettabbli, kemm mill-arċidjoċesi ta’ Malta kif ukoll mis-sopra-intendenza tal-wirt kulturali. Kemm l-Arċisqof kif ukoll is-Sopratendent tal-Wirt Kulturali jeħtieġ li jagħmlu apoloġija pubblika għax l-ewwel oġġezzjonaw minħabba li l-bini propost mhux postu ħdejn il-kappella u mbagħad, wara, irtiraw l-oġġezzjoni tagħhom. B’dak li għamlu, t-tnejn li huma taw kontribut biex dan il-mostru jimmaterjalizza.

Iktar kmieni din il-ġimgħa, l-portal elettroniku Shift News svela li Malti fin-negozju tal-ikel Tork, li f’ismu daħlet applikazzjoni ta’ żvilupp biex jinbena dan il-monstru  għandu sieħeb sieket fin-negozju: l-perit li iffirma l-applikazzjoni ta’ żvilupp. Skond ix-Shift News huwa jippossjedi 50 fil-mija tal-ishma tal-kumpanija Juke Developments Limited, il-kumpanija li qed tieħu ħsieb l-iżvilupp.

Mhux aċċettabbli li l-perit ikun ukoll żviluppatur.  Din hi imġieba ħażina li qed titfa’ dell ikrah fuq il-professjoni kollha. Hi materja ta’ etika li l-Kamra tal-Periti, li hi inkarigata milli tirregola l-professjoni, tevita kontinwament milli tesprimi ruħha u tieħu posizzjoni dwarha.

Madwar sentejn ilu, f’artiklu fuq Illum intitolat Il-perit-żviluppatur (8 ta’ Marzu 2020) kont ġbidt l-attenzjoni li l-perit inkarigat mill-proġett tal-Ħamrun, li fl-istadji inizzjali tiegħu kien wassal għall-mewt ta’ Miriam Pace, kien jippossjedi 10 fil-mija tal-ishma tal-kumpanija li kienet qed tieħu ħsieb l-iżvilupp.

Il-Kodiċi dwar l-Imġieba Professjonali għall-periti fil-gżejjer Maltin jipprovdi li  Perit f’Malta “ma għandux jokkupa, jassumi jew xjentement jaċċetta kariga li fiha l-interess tiegħu jkun kontra d-dmirijiet professjonali tiegħu.”

Il-punt hu jekk id-doveri professjonali ta’ perit inkarigat minn żvilupp humiex f’kunflitt ma li tkun ukoll, fl-istess ħin “l-żviluppatur”. Il-perit inkarigat minn lant tax-xogħol huwa ultimament responsabbli  għal dak li jseħħ fuq il-lant  avolja illum ġieli jkun assistit minn xi site officer, li imma rari jkun fuq il-lant! L-iskop tal-żviluppatur, min-naħa l-oħra, kif jgħidu, hu li jdawwar lira: hu interessat li jimmassimizza l-profitti mill-iżvilupp tal-art.

Il-Kodiċi dwar l-Imġieba Professjonali li semmejt iktar il-fuq jemfasizza li l-perit “jirċievi rimunerazzjoni biss bid-drittijiet professjonali tiegħu li jitħallsu mill-klijenti tiegħu u/jew bis-salarju tiegħu li jitħallas mill-prinċipal tiegħu. Hu ma jkunx jista’ jieħu rimunerazzjoni minn riżorsi oħra relattiva għax-xogħol u għad-dmirijiet fdati lilu.”   B’dan, fil-fehma tiegħi, hu ċar li perit ma jistax ikollu sehem minn profitti li jirriżultaw minn żvilupp tal-art u għaldaqstant m’għandux jaġixxi ta’ żviluppatur, la waħdu u l-anqas bi sħab ma ħaddieħor. Il-profitti mill-iżvilupp tal-art m’għandhomx ikunu l-motiv għall-ħidma professjonali tal-perit.  

Jidher li l-Kamra tal-Periti ma taqbilx ma dan għax b’mod konsistenti hi siekta dwar is-suġġett. Dan is-skiet hu inevitabilment interpretat bħala li l-Kamra tal-Periti qed taċċetta is-sitwazzjoni attwali. Mhux ta’ b’xejn, għaldaqstant li n-numru ta’ każi magħrufa ta’ periti li huma sħab fin-negozju ta’ żvilupp ta’ propjetà, imma li isimhom ma jidhirx, qiegħed jiżdied. Isimhom ma jidhirx għax huma konxji mill-kunflitt li hemm u jagħmlu ħilithom li jostru dan kollu fil-mixja tagħhom lejn sehem mill-profitti li jirriżultaw minn dan l-iżvilupp.

Bosta snin ilu, meta kont membru elett tal-Bord li jirregola l-ħruġ tal-warrant tal-periti kont ippreżentajt proposta biex dan kollu, jiġifieri ir-rwol ta’ periti li jaġixxu ta’ żviluppaturi, jkun regolat. Il-proposta tiegħi dakinnhar ma kienitx imxiet il-quddiem.

Sfortunatament, sal-lum, għad ma ittieħdet l-ebda azzjoni dwar dan kollu. Li nibqgħu ma tittieħed l-ebda azzjoni jfisser li l-qagħda preżenti tkun aċċettata bħala n-normalità. Sfortunatament dan hu konsistenti mal-valuri tas-soċjetà amorali li qed tiżviluppa madwarna.

ippubblikat fuq Illum: 28 t’Awwissu 2022

The kebab man and his business partner

The monstrosity dwarfing the Manikata chapel approved by the Planning Authority was considered acceptable by both the Archdiocese of Malta and the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage. Both the Archbishop as well as the Superintendent of Cultural Heritage owe every one of us an apology for having withdrawn their objection to this development. They had originally submitted that the proposed development is incompatible with the chapel and its surroundings. Then they had second thoughts, thereby contributing to the development of this monstrosity.

Online news portal, Shift News, has revealed, earlier this week, that a man in the kebab business, in whose name the application was submitted has a silent business partner: the architect who signed the approved development application. The Shift News, also revealed that the architect is a co-owner of the development site through his 50 per cent ownership in Juke Developments Limited, the company which has taken charge of the development.

It is not on that architects are also developers.  This is a professional misconduct which is bringing the whole profession into disrepute. It is an ethical matter which has been repeatedly avoided by the Chamber of Architects and Civil Engineers, the professional body entrusted with regulating the architectural profession in the Maltese islands.

Around two years ago, in these columns, in an article entitled The architect-developer (8 March 2020) I had pointed out that the architect in charge of the development at Ħamrun, which development had, in its initial stages, resulted in the death of Miriam Pace, had a 10 per cent shareholding in the company which was carrying out the development.

The Code of Professional Conduct for architects practicing in the Maltese islands clearly lays down that a locally warranted architect “must not hold, assume or consciously accept a position in which his interest is in conflict with his professional duty.”

The point at issue is whether the professional duties of an architect in charge of a development are in conflict with the interests of being “the developer”. The architect in charge of a site of works is ultimately responsible for what goes on the site, even though he is nowadays assisted by a site officer who in most cases is rarely present on site! The developer, on the other hand is interested in the potential maximisation of profits resulting from the development of the site under consideration: making hay while the sun shines! The profits resulting from development should not be the professional’s motivation.

The Code of Professional Conduct abovementioned goes on to emphasise that a locally warranted architect “is remunerated solely by his professional fees payable by his clients and/or by his salary payable by his employer. He is debarred from any other source of remuneration in connection with the works and duties entrusted to him.”  In my opinion this clearly forbids architects from sharing in the profits of development and consequently in being developers, on their own or together with others.

Apparently, the Chamber of Architects and Civil Engineers disagrees with the above as it has been consistently silent on the matter. This silence has inevitably been interpreted by one and all as acquiescence: accepting the current state of affairs. It is consequently no wonder that the number of known cases of architects being silent partners in development projects is quietly on the increase. They are silent partners, meaning that they are aware that there is a conflict in their responsibilities which they do their best to hide in their pursuit of a share of the profits resulting from development.

Many years ago, when I was an elected member of the architects Warranting Board, I had presented a proposal to start regulating the role of architects who act as developers. My proposal was not acted upon.

Unfortunately, no action has been taken to date. Taking no action signifies accepting the present situation as the normal acceptable behaviour. This is unfortunately consistent with the norms of the amoral society which currently rules the roost.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday: 28 August 2022

Stormwater Management: entrenched incompetence

(photo by author dated 4 October 2018: overflowing sewer at Archbishop Gonzi Square Kalkara)

The Ministry for Public Works and Planning has embarked on another public consultation on stormwater management. I have lost count as to the number of times this exercise has been carried out along the years, directly or indirectly. At the end of the day the authorities continuously develop cold feet as they fail to address the basic issue: enforcement!

The consultation document points to a basic statistic which proves this point: only 36 per cent of dwellings have a water cistern. This notwithstanding that the matter has been codified in our legislation since 1880: that is since the approval of Ordinance I of 1880 by the British colonial government. Before that date most buildings had a water cistern. Everyone was then aware that water in Malta is scarce and all sought to do their part in collecting rainwater. Nowadays no one cares, as long as there is water in the tap!

The consultation document, entitled Green Stormwater Infrastructure Guidance Manual, drawing on Census 2011 information, further points out that it is in the sector of apartment blocks that one finds the largest number of infringements in non-provision of water cisterns. Compliance ranges from 80 per cent in the case of villas to 4 per cent in the case of apartments. On a geographic level it is probably no surprise that Gozo is only 25 per cent compliant!

As is also pointed out by the consultation document the present state of water harvesting is the result of a lack of adequate enforcement. I would emphasise that it is a case of an incompetent, almost inexistent, enforcement. It is very easy to point at developers who try to avoid excavating or constructing water cisterns, reducing his costs and increasing profits. They have a number of accomplices, who ignore this fact and then proceed to certify works as having been completed satisfactorily. In these instances, compliance certificates are issued just the same by the Planning Authority. Likewise, the Water Services Corporation authorises the connection of foul water drains from such developments to the public sewer without generally bothering to ascertain as to where rainwater is being collected or directed.

Rainwater is to be collected in a water cistern which should be fitted with an overflow which directs excess rainwater onto the street. Instead, a number of developments direct all rainwater directly onto the street. At times, unfortunately increasing in frequency, rainwater is disposed of directly into the public sewer.

This is the cause of flooded streets and overflowing sewers with which we are very familiar during and after heavy rainfall.

Enforcement hits hard as non-compliance is widespread. This is the primary reason as to why no government has seriously embarked on tackling this problem. In the past government, instead of addressing the root cause of the problem, that is the non-provision of water cisterns, embarked on the drilling of a number of tunnels to facilitate the collection of rainwater and its dumping into the sea. Millions of euros in EU funds were utilised in this exercise, literally money down the drain.  Notwithstanding this misapplication of EU funds, the problem of flooded streets and overflowing sewers is still a common occurrence during and immediately after heavy rainfall.

Having expertly drawn up codes and manuals is generally helpful. It is however no substitute for clear indiscriminate enforcement: no exceptions allowed. It is what we lack. It is the result of clientelism forming an integral part of the philosophy of government and administration. It is a political disease which is not limited to stormwater management but as we all know is spread throughout the public administration.

If those employed to implement our laws, rules and regulations get on with their jobs, the problem of stormwater management would be substantially smaller, and definitely quite manageable!

The basic problem which the consultation document does not discuss is that there is no political will to ensure that simple rules on rainwater harvesting are observed by all. The rest follows.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 3rd July 2022

After the agricultural fair has ended

The onslaught on agricultural land is continuous. It is unfortunately many a time abated by land use planning operatives. It would be an understatement to emphasise that they should know better.

Among the countless examples faced on a continuous basis I can list the following: the over-development of road infrastructure, quarries, boatyards, solar farms and fireworks factories proposed in rural areas and in lieu of agricultural land. Added to these examples one can add the craze of changing the use of agricultural land into picnic or barbeque areas. This creation of recreational areas is squeezing out agriculture! All this would not happen without the complicity of the Planning Authority and those appointed to lead it.

The agricultural fair organised last week exposed another aspect: the anguish of the farming community. A discussion organised within the precincts of the grounds of the agricultural fair focused on food security. The spiralling cost of imported animal feed fuelled by the Russian invasion of Ukraine as well as international business pressures are adding to the problems of those involved in animal husbandry.

Farmers are being pushed out of the land they have been tilling at an increasing rate. No one in his right senses would dare invest in the modernisation of an agricultural holding in such a climate. The banks, on the other hand, emphasised the farmers who took part in the discussion, are not forthcoming with loans to facilitate matters, most probably as they consider the risks involved too high.

In the meantime, eviction of farmers from the land they have tilled for generations continues unabated as government takes too long to come up with a reform of the agricultural lease legal setup.

Government has, for all intents and purposes, abandoned the agricultural community. In addition, it has repeatedly carved agricultural land into new or widened roads. The irrigated agricultural land at Attard had to make way for the so-called Central Link. Shortly more agricultural land on the outskirts of  Qormi will make way for improvements to the Mrieħel bypass project.  Add this to the planned havoc continuously emanating from the Planning Authority and you can easily understand what the agricultural community has to bear.

It is indeed ironic that a government which boasts of a programme which is intended to create more open spaces is at the same time determined to ruin more natural open spaces on the outskirts of our towns and villages.

It is clear that government has taken a basic political decision: cars have a priority over agriculture. This decision is clearly manifested in the manner of operation of Infrastructure Malta which is gobbling up extensive agricultural land which stands in the way of its projects. It is further manifested in the absolute silence of the Agricultural Ministry when it is faced with this behaviour. The agricultural minister is apparently more interested in our heritage which leaves him little time to focus on the needs of agriculture and the farmers who depend on it for their livelihood.

Given the ever-increasing population on these islands it was always very clear that local agriculture could never, on its own, suffice to cater for our needs. Supplementing local agricultural produce with imported produce should be done with care as there is always a danger that the local market can be flooded with low priced goods which make the life of our farmers more miserable than it already is!

The organisation of the agricultural fair was a good idea. It must however be supplemented with a heavy dose of good faith which is missing in the attitudes of the holders of political office in the Ministry of Agriculture through the rest of the year, that is when there is no agricultural fair!

published on the Malta Independent on Sunday : 29 May 2022

Meta Abela u l-PN kienu jħokku dahar xulxin

Robert Abela hu s-suġġett kurrenti tal-billboards tal-PN. Imma, bħal ma jiġri dejjem, il-kampanja tal-PN fuq il-billboards tgħid biċċa waħda żgħira mill-istorja vera. Tiffoka fuq il-ġid li akkumula Abela permezz tal-kuntratti ta’ xogħol professjonali assoċjat mal-Gvern, speċjalment permezz tal-Awtorità tal-Ippjanar.  Il-billboard iwassal il-messaġġ politiku li Robert Abela jiġi jaqa’ u jqum u li huwa insensittiv. Jgħidilna li filwaqt li hu għamel żmien jiffanga bi dħul ta’ €17,000 fix-xahar int tikkrepa b’żieda miżera ta’ €1.75 fil-ġimgħa għall-għoli tal-ħajja.

Il-punt bażiku reali, imma, li l-billboard jinjora kompletament hu kif il-PLPN jimmanipulaw il-finanzi tal-pajjiż u l-proċeduri tax-xiri ta’ servizzi biex iżommu lill-ħbieb kuntenti u lill-għedewwa taħt kontroll.

Il-billboard tal-PN, jgħidilna li l-uffiċċju legali ta’ Robert Abela, xi żmien ilu, kellu dħul ta’ mhux inqas minn €17,000 fix-xahar mis-servizz professjonali legali li kien jagħti lill-Awtorità tal-Ippjanar. Il-billboard, imma,  ma jgħidilna xejn dwar kif dan kollu oriġina minn sejħa għal espressjoni ta’ interess u sussegwentement direct order lil George Abela li kienet imbierka mill-Gvern immexxi minn Lawrence Gonzi.   Dan seħħ fi żmien meta Abela ma kienx f’relazzjoni tajba la mal-Partit Laburista u inqas u inqas mat-tmexxija tal-istess partit!

F’sezzjoni tal-media kien irrappurtat li dan kollu beda fl-istess żmien meta George Abela aċċetta l-istedina biex jifforma parti mill-core group, parti mill-proċess preparatorju li kellu jwassal biex Malta tissieħeb fl-Unjoni Ewropea. George Abela ipparteċipa f’dan il-core group minkejja li l-Partit Laburista, li tiegħu sa ftit qabel hu kien Deputy Leader, kien jopponi din il-proposta b’qilla kbira.

Meta George Abela kien nominat u sussegwentement ġie appuntat President tar-Republika mill-Gvern ta’ Lawrence Gonzi, ibnu Robert ħa f’idejh it-tmexxija tal-uffiċċju legali ta’ missieru. Huwa u jagħmel dan, avukat ieħor li kien sħab ma’ George Abela spiċċa barra. Jingħad li ma qablux fuq kif ser jaqsmu dak li jdaħħal l-uffiċċju! Ftit wara, dan l-avukat l-ieħor spiċċa CEO tal-Awtorità tal-Ippjanar. Min hawn il-quddiem il-familja Abela ma kelliex diffikulta biex tgawdi r-rigal sostanzjali tal-Gvern ta’  Lawrence Gonzi. Il-familja Abela setgħet isserraħ rasha għax fil-mument tal-bżonn il-Gvern ta’ Lawrence Gonzi kien hemm għall-għajnuna. Wara kollox, mhux għalhekk qegħdin il-ħbieb?  

Ta’ Abela kienu attentissimi li ħobżhom jieħdu ħsiebu sewwa! Dejjem irnexxielhom!  Biex jaslu iddefendew kull taħwid fl-ippjanar għall-użu tal-art tul is-snin, kemm dak taħt il-Gvern ta’ Gonzi kif ukoll dak taħt is-suċċessur tiegħu Joseph Muscat.

Tul is-snin id-direct order lill-uffiċċju legali tal-familja Abela mhux biss ġie ikkonfermat, talli kiber fl-iskop u fil-ħlas li ġġenera.

Waqt dan kollu kien hemm leħen wieħed kritiku ta’ dak li kien qed jiġri: kien kritiku tad-direct order tal-Awtorità tal-Ippjanar lill-uffiċċju legali tal-familja Abela. Dan kien Joe Mizzi,  l-Membru Parlamentari Laburista mill-Kalkara. Kien qiesu seqer, jaf x’inhu jiġri, għax hu kien ir-rappresentant tal-Opposizzjoni Laburista fuq il-Bord tal-Awtorità tal-Ippjanar.

Joe Mizzi dam ftit mhux ħażin biex ħa tweġiba għal dan kollu. Dan seħħ meta tħalla barra minn l-ewwel Kabinett ta’ Robert Abela liema Kabinett tħabbar nhar il-15 ta’ Jannar 2020!  Imma sa dak in-nhar hu kien ilu jappoġġa l-kandidatura ta’ Chris Fearne għat-tmexxija tal-Partit Laburista.

Din hi l-istorja li l-billboard jaħbi. Storja ta’ kemm meta kien meħtieġ il-familja Abela u l-PN kienu  jħokku dar xulxin!

ippubblikat fuq Illum: il-Ħadd 6 ta’ Frar 2022

Abela’s bread: buttered on both sides!

Robert Abela is the current billboard boy of the PN. The PN’s campaign, all over their billboards, however, only emphasises part of the real story: it is focused on Abela’s wealth generated through government contracts, specifically through the Planning Authority. It makes the political point that Robert Abela does not care. He is insensitive, states the billboard: he gluttons through €17,000 per month; you get a miserly €1.75 per week cost of living increase.

The real basic issue however, conveniently avoided by the billboard, is how the PLPN manipulate the country’s finances and procurement procedures to keep friends happy and foes on a leash.

The PN billboard points to the fact that the legal office of Robert Abela, at a recent point in time, had an income of at least €17,000 per month from legal services rendered to the Planning Authority.  The billboard does not, however, in any way indicate, that the contract was originally the result of an expression of interest and subsequently of a direct order. This was carried out with the compliments of the Lawrence Gonzi led PN government to George Abela, Robert’s father, at a time when the Abelas had very sour relations with the Labour Party and its leadership!

Sections of the media have reported that this lucrative relationship commenced at the same time that George Abela accepted the invitation to take part in the EU accession core group, part of the preparatory process leading to Malta’s accession to the European Union. George Abela participated in this core group notwithstanding that, the Labour Party, of which some time previously he had been deputy leader, was an aggressive opponent of the EU accession proposal. I am informed that additional members of the core group were Harry Vassallo, Lino Briguglio, Joe Saliba and Godfrey Baldacchino.

When George Abela was nominated and appointed President of the Republic by the Gonzi Government, his son Robert took over the running of the law firm. In the process the other lawyer who was a partner in the Abela law firm was immediately squeezed out of the firm. It is rumoured that they disagreed on the distribution of the profits of the law firm. As a result, the other lawyer was offered and he eventually assumed the role as CEO of the Planning Authority. The Abelas consequently had no obstacle to retaining full control of the lucrative gifts of the Lawrence Gonzi government. The Abelas had their mind at rest that at times of need Lawrence Gonzi and his government could always be relied upon. After all that is what friends are for!

The Abelas always sought to have their bread buttered on both sides. They were quite successful in this respect throughout the years. In the process they defended tooth and nail many a planning mess, both those created by the Gonzi government as well as also those created by his successor Joseph Muscat.

The PN direct order to the Abela law firm was confirmed throughout the years and widened in scope. The payments made increased accordingly.

I remember one solitary voice at that time denouncing the lucrative direct order of the Planning Authority to the Abela law firm: it was the Kalkara Labour MP Joe Mizzi. Joe Mizzi knew what was going on from day one: he was the representative of the Labour Party Parliamentary Opposition on the Board of the Planning Authority.

Payback for Joe Mizzi took quite some time to arrive. He was left out of the first Robert Abela Cabinet on the 15 January 2020!  But by then he had also endorsed Chris Fearne in the Labour leadership contest.

This is the real background to the billboard boy’s story!

published in the Malta Independent on Sunday : 5 February 2022

Saving the little that we have

Almost two years ago, Architect Edward Said submitted a request to the Planning Authority and the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage in order that they take steps to protect a Villa along the St Julian’s promenade. The Villa known as Palazzina Vincenti was designed and constructed for his own use by Architect Gustavo Romeo Vincenti. Architect Vincenti died in 1974.

As far as is known, neither the Planning Authority nor the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage have acted upon the submissions received requesting the protection of Palazzina Vincenti. At the time of writing the Superintendence has passed the buck to the Planning Authority! In the meantime, a development application has been submitted for the demolition of Palazzina Vincenti and its substitution with a 17-storey 136 room hotel, including three levels below street level providing garage space for 58 cars.

In a report drawn up by Architect Edward Said, Palazzina Vincenti is described as “a masterpiece of architecture defined by pure geometric volumes”.  It is considered as one of the earliest examples of the use of reinforced concrete in domestic architecture in Malta.  Quoting from a 2018 Masters of Architecture dissertation by David Ellul, Architect Said emphasises that by taking full advantage of the potential of reinforced concrete, Vincenti’s artistic expression was freed from the limitations of traditional materials. The result is this masterpiece which can be lost quite soon!

Even though to the untrained eye Palazzina Vincenti may seem to be an ugly building specimen, ill-fitting in its present-day concrete jungle surroundings, it is still a masterpiece worth preserving for posterity.

I fail to understand why two years after a request for protection has been submitted no action has yet been taken. As a result of such inaction, the message conveyed by the authorities is a very clear one: that the site occupied by Palazzina Vincenti is ripe for development. This is an inevitable conclusion conveyed by those in charge as a result of their failure to act.

At this point in time, as a minimum, it is expected that an emergency conservation order protecting Palazzina Vincenti is issued urgently. This would be a clear sign to those currently benefitting from a prolonged phase of “development greed” that a red line has been drawn around our heritage, thereby protecting it. It would also provide some breathing space which would be of considerable help in order that the Planning Authority may bring its house in order.

Some have the mistaken idea that all our heritage is necessarily old, very old, going back centuries. This is certainly not the case as this specific architectural masterpiece is less than 75 years old. Unfortunately, there have been other worthy examples of our architectural heritage which have been lost through carelessness, insensitivity and institutional ignorance.

I could remind readers of another outstanding example of modern architecture which has gone to the dogs, this time in Gozo, some 15 years ago. Parts of the Qala Primary School in Gozo were demolished to make way for an Institute of Tourism Studies campus in Gozo. The said school was designed and constructed under the supervision of Architect Joseph Huntingford who as the government architect in charge of schools was responsible for most new schools constructed in Gozo between 1950 and 1961.

Way back in 2006 the Chamber of Architects and Civil Engineers had described the Qala Primary School as one of the finest examples of modern architecture on the island. Even then the Planning Authority was advised to handle our heritage with care. But it was of no use. The advice was ignored as parts of the school were demolished to make way for the ITS campus.

There is still time to save Palazzina Vincenti from being sacrificed on the altar of “development greed”. We need to be more appreciative of our heritage. We have so little of it. I am not however so sure as to whether the Planning Authority is capable of taking decisive action. It has been desensitised for far too long.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday: 12 December 2021

The regeneration of Marsa

The public consultation which commenced earlier this week relative to the regeneration of the inner part of the Grand Harbour along the coastal area of Marsa is most welcome. Marsa has been neglected for far too long.

The Planning Authority has been criticised in the past for its piecemeal reviews of the local plans. It is hoped that this exercise will be a holistic one. It is the whole of Marsa which should be addressed and not one tiny corner! The decay of Marsa as an urban centre needs to be addressed at the earliest opportunity. This will not be done through piecemeal local plan reviews but through a comprehensive planning exercise.

The proposed strategic vision, as directed by government, is however not a suitable one. Through the Planning Authority, government is proposing that the area subject of the consultation be transformed into a “prime tourism and leisure harbour destination”.

The primary question to be addressed is whether it is desirable for our economy to further increase its dependence on tourism. The answer to this basic question, in my view, is a clear no. It is thus not on to reserve more prime sites for tourism. Tourism has gobbled up too many prime sites. Too many land use planning policies have been compromised in the exclusive interest of the tourism industry.  

Tourism has also proven itself to be a very weak link in the economic chain. It has been brought down to its knees as a result of Covid19. It is still very weak and will take more time to recover. Understandably a significant part of its labour force has migrated to other sectors and is unwilling to return to work in the tourism sector.

Rather than more tourism we definitely need less of it.

Prior to Covid19 we had reached saturation levels in the tourism sector. The post-Covid19 impact period is a unique opportunity for tourism to be re-dimensioned in order to reduce its impacts on the community. Unfortunately, the Planning Authority is insensitive to all this: it plans to give us more of the same.  

The availability of the former power station site and its surroundings is definitely a unique opportunity which should not be squandered on the tourism industry.

The innermost part of the Grand Harbour has always been dedicated to the maritime sector for which this is a unique opportunity to re-organise, modernise and increase its contribution to the national economy while reducing its environmental impacts. Scaling down the ship-repairing facilities and moving them to outside the area earmarked for regeneration could shift this activity to close proximity of residential areas in localities which are close by. This should therefore be avoided.  Even though I doubt very much whether in practice it is that easy to shift these facilities.

The regeneration of the inner part of the Grand Harbour Area can be achieved without tying down the area to development which is tourism-linked. The consultation strategy itself identifies various other options and activities amongst which new business ventures which improve the overall well-being of the community.

The tourism industry itself, over two years ago, had sounded the alarm that the number of tourists arriving in Malta was too high: beyond that which the country can take sustainably. Research published at the same time had identified the first signs of turismofobia, a mixture of repudiation, mistrust and contempt for tourists and tourism. These are the first indications of social discontent with the pressures linked to tourism growth. They need to be addressed but are however being ignored.

There is obviously a need for less tourism, not more of it. Access to public investment has to be made available to other sectors.

The public consultation is in its initial stages, and it is still possible for the discussion to develop along different lines. The discussion required is one which addresses Marsa as a whole and which does not focus on just one tiny corner, even though it may be an important corner.

This is a unique opportunity for all stakeholders who can and should get involved to assist in the identification of a sustainable vision for the regeneration of Marsa as a whole: in the interests of all.

published on the Malta Independent on Sunday : 5 December 2021