Open spaces and the 15-minute city

Having a substantially increased area of open spaces and ensuring that these spaces are accessible for all is good policy. The fact that currently we lack accessible open spaces is a failure of land use planning as practised in Malta, which is unfortunately speculation oriented instead of being focused on optimisation of land use as a contribution towards an improvement in the quality of life for all.

Government is embarking on a €700 million project in order to enhance existing open spaces as well as to create or to encourage the creation of new ones. No one would object to that provided that it is not an excuse for a different and undeclared objective.

In order for such a project to be successful it must be part of a long-term view of enhancing our surroundings such that we bridge the substantial and ever-widening gap which separates us from nature. However, what is really needed is a change in attitude towards the availability of public space as an essential element in the basic infrastructure required for an enhanced healthy quality of life.

While it is definitely an acceptable objective to create new open spaces, we could do much better if, as an essential first step we strive to retain existent open spaces and save them from destruction. Private gardens, some of them of a substantial size, forming an integral part of our urban areas and village cores have for quite some time been making way for the development of blocks of flats. These should be the first obvious open spaces which we should seek to protect if we are serious about the importance of open spaces. Such gardens have served as the lungs of our local communities for ages. They are in private ownership but they still contribute substantially to the wellbeing of our communities. This does not entail any expense. All it requires is a dose of consistency and plenty of goodwill.

Next on the protection list would be agricultural land which is being lost at an ever-accelerating rate. When agricultural land is not being engulfed by road-building or building development it is being taken up by those who want to transform it into BBQ or picnic land, as their private recreational hideout.  In the process they squeeze out farmers who have tilled the land for ages and contributed continuously to the national food production effort. Even this does not entail any expense. All it requires is properly functioning authorities, which we lack!

The urge for more open spaces is a longing to re-establish contacts with our roots, that is with nature. Nature has a role in every aspect of our life. We can only keep ignoring it at our peril. This would primarily signify that open spaces need to reintroduce nature into our localities and not introduce a number of token planters in concrete pots. Open spaces are about nature and not about the increased domination of our localities by concrete in whatever shape or form! Nor should they be used as parking spaces.

It has been emphasised that the current project of investing in open spaces aims to ensure that each and every one of us will have access to a public open space not more than ten minutes away from where he or she resides. This objective ties in with a current initiative in various European towns of developing a 15-minute city: that is a local community which is almost self-sufficient, all needs, or most of them being available not more than 15 minutes away. It is not just public open spaces which ought to be close by: all our basic needs should be within easy reach.

This would necessitate that we examine closely our urban fabric to realise that the small commercial outlets which have served our local communities for ages are heading towards extinction. They are being squeezed out of the market through the ever-increasing number of supermarkets and large commercial establishments.

The idea of ‘the 15-minute city’ initially put forward by Carlos Moreno, an architect advising the Paris mayor, but adopted by an ever-increasing number of cities entails turning current urban planning on its head to ensure that all our needs are available not more than 15 minutes away.

Carlos Moreno speaks of a social circularity for living in our urban spaces based on six essential functions: to live in good housing, to work close by, to reach supplies and services easily, to access education, healthcare and cultural entitlement locally by low-carbon means.

Can we reassess the nature and quality of our urban lifestyles within these parameters?

Small commercial outlets in our towns and villages require support as they are an essential help to make our communities vibrant: being of service and creating local employment in the process. Encouraging the local commercial outlets also reduces traffic at all times of the day as there will be less need to travel. It would also directly help in achieving that other objective of reducing cars from our roads.

Land use planning is for people. It is about time that this is put into practice. It is only within this context that the funding of community greening projects makes any sense.

published in The Independent on Sunday 29 January 2023

L-inkompetenza, ħsara biss tagħmel

L-impjant f’Ħal-Far għall-ipproċessar tal-fdalijiet tat-tonn kellu l-potenzjal li jagħti kontribut sostanzjali għall-iżvilupp tal-ekonomija ċirkulari f’Malta. Bħal ħafna affarijiet oħra l-inkompetenza qerditu.

Fuq il-karta kien proġett tal-ogħla kwalità. Fil-prattika, s’issa, qed jiżviluppa f’diżastru ieħor.  Biċċiet ta’ informazzjoni li qed tasal għandi qed tindika li probabbilment ser jirriżulta li x-xeħħa fil-fondi allokati biex ikun ikkummissjonat l-apparat istallat fl-impjant, hi l-kawża ewlenija tad-diżastru li qed jiżviluppa.

Bħala riżultat ta’ dan kollu irnexxielhom jittrasformaw pass pożittiv f’esperjenza negattiva għal kulħadd. L-impatt ta’ dan kollu ser jibqa’ magħna għal żmien mhux żgħir għax riżultat ta’ dak li ġara qed tissaħħaħ l-isfiduċja fl-awtoritajiet li għal darb’oħra ġie ippruvat li mhumiex kapaċi li jwasslu proġett tajjeb biex jagħti r-riżultat mixtieq.

Għal darb’oħra l-inkonvenjent hu fuq Birżebbuġa, kif ilu jiġri s-snin riżultat ta’ attività industrijali oħra fiż-żona. L-assalt fuq Birżebbuġa tul is-snin ħalla impatt fuq il-kwalità tal-ħajja tar-residenti.  Fuq quddiem nett f’dan ir-rigward hemm it-Terminal tal-Port Ħieles, li hu ta’ inkonvenjent 24 siegħa kull jum. Huwa biss dan l-aħħar li dan l-inkonvenjent beda jiġi indirizzat.

Qiesu dan mhux biżżejjed, fiż-żona industrijali ta’ Ħal-Far, f’data mhux il-bogħod ser ikollna ukoll trakka tal-karozzi li ser tkun iffinanzjata mill-fondi li nġabru mill-bejgħ tal-passaporti! Iktar impatt fuq ir-residenti ta’ Birżebbuġa!

L-aktar attakk riċenti fuq il-kwalità tal-ħajja f’Birżebbuġa qed isir mill-attività ta’ Aquaculture Resources Ltd f’dawn l-aħħar ġimgħat. Dan riżultat tal-irwejjaħ ta’ ħut u drenaġġ ifur fiż-żoni residenzjali.  It-tmexxija tal-kumpanija Aquaculture Resources Ltd kontinwament irrifjutat li terfa’ r-responsabbiltà għall-irwejjaħ tal-ħut u d-drenaġġ ifur għax, qalet, li qed tieħu l-passi kollha meħtieġa fl-impjant tagħha f’Ħal-Far.  

Il-binja li fiha illum hemm l-impjant għall-iproċessar ta’ prodotti tat-tonn kien approvat permezz ta’ applikazzjoni li ma tieħux ħin u dan riżultat ta’ emendi għar-regolamenti tal-ippjanar magħrufa bħala proċeduri tad-DNO (Development Notification Order). Fil-prattika dan elimina l-konsultazzjoni pubblika fil-kaz ta’ xogħolijiet ta’ kostruzzjoni f’żoni industrijali. Riżultat ta’ hekk ħadd ma kien jaf li nhar is-16 ta’ Marzu 2021, l-Awtorità tal-Ippjanar ħarġet il-permess ta’ żvilupp bir-referenza DN01359/20 għall-binja tal-impjant fuq il-Plot 36B fiż-żona Industrijali ta’ Ħal-Far. Il-permess ħareġ f’isem Dr Charlon Gouder, CEO ta’ Aquaculture Resources Limited.

Il-konsultazzjoni pubblika bdiet biss f’Ġunju 2022, ftit wara l-elezzjoni ġenerali. Dan seħħ permezz ta’ dokumentazzjoni dwar il-proċess li jwassal għal permess ambjentali magħruf bħala applikazzjioni IPPC. L-ittri IPPC jfissru Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control u l-proċess hu regolat b’direttiva tal-Unjoni Ewropeja li ġġib dan l-isem u li ilha parti mill-liġi Maltija sa minn meta Malta issieħbet fl-Unjoni fl-2004.

Id-Direttiva IPPC hi intenzjonata biex ikun assigurat li l-impatti ambjentali ta’ numru ta’ proċessi industrijali jkunu indirizzati b’mod integrat. L-impjant tal-prodotti tat-tonn hu soġġett għal din id-Direttiva.

Riżultat ta’ hekk hu meħtieġ il-presentazzjoni ta’ dokumentazzjoni dettaljata teknika li permezz tagħha jkun ċar dwar kif ser issir il-ħidma industrijali, dwar l-impatti ambjentali riżultanti kif ukoll dwar kif inhu ippjanat li dawn ikunu indirizzati.

Din id-dokumentazzjoni ġiet ippreżentata u wara li kienet eżaminata mill-ERA ħareġ il-permess għall-impjant biex jipproċessa l-fdalijiet tat-tonn.

Il-problemi bdew kif beda jopera l-impjant hekk kif beda l-proċess biex l-apparat istallat ikun ikkummissjonat. Jiena infurmat li d-ditta li mingħandha inxtara l-apparat ma ntalbitx biex tieħu ħsieb ukoll li dan ikun ikkummissjonat. Mid-dehra dawk li ġew inkarigati ma tantx kellhom esperjenza f’dan ix-xogħol, kif jidher, wara kollox mir-riżultati miksuba.  

Forsi l-ERA tiftaħ investigazzjoni biex ikun stabilit mhux biss x’ġara imma ukoll min kien responsabbli. Għax hu essenzjali li jkun assigurat li kull min kien involut, inkluż l-ERA, jitgħallem minn din l-esperjenza. Din hi froġa li nħolqot mis-settur privat minkejja li kien qed jaħdem taħt is-superviżjoni tal-ERA! Anke proġett tajjeb irnexxielhom b’inkompetenza kbira jeqirduh!

Ippubblikat fuq Illum: 18 ta’ Diċembru 2022

The art of messing up

The processing plant for Tuna By-Products at Ħal-Far had the potential to be a significant project contributing to the development of the circular economy in Malta. Like many other things it has been messed up.

On paper it was a first-class project. In practice, so far, it is developing into another disaster. Titbits of information which have come my way indicate that eventually it will most probably result that cost-cutting relative to commissioning of the equipment installed in the processing plant is the primary cause of the developing mess.

The end result of this mess-up is that of transforming a potential positive into an absolute negative. The effects of this will be felt for quite some time as it has reinforced the existing mistrust of the authorities who have proven once more that they are incapable of guiding a beneficial project to fruition!

Birżebbuġa is once more shouldering all the resulting inconvenience as it has been doing for many years relative to other industrial operations in the area.  The assault on Birżebbuġa over the years has negatively impacted the quality of life of its residents. The Freeport Terminal tops the list with its round-the-clock inconvenience. It is only relatively recently that this inconvenience has started being addressed.

To add insult to injury the Ħal-Far Industrial Estate will shortly also host a racetrack, the funds for which have already been allocated through the monies collected from the sale of golden passports!  

The latest affront on Birżebbuġa has been the operations of Aquaculture Resources Ltd which commenced earlier this year, and specifically the result of fishy effluent ending up in residential areas in Birżebbuġa.  The management of Aquaculture Resources Ltd has refused to take responsibility for the unbearable fish odours and sewage leaks that have affected the area, stating that the  company has taken measures to contain smells within the tuna by-product processing  plant. 

The building envelope of the tuna byproduct processing plant was approved through a fast-track procedure made possible some years back through amendments to the Development Notification Order. This, in practice, eliminated public consultation for construction works in industrial estates.  As a result, no-one was aware that on 16 March 2021 the Planning Authority issued a development permit bearing reference DN 01359/20 for the Construction of a Tuna Rending Factory on Plot 36B of Ħal-Far Industrial Estate. The permit was issued to Dr Charlon Gouder, the CEO of Aquaculture Resources Limited.

The public consultation only commenced in June 2022, after the general elections, through the publication of the documentation for the environmental permitting process known as the IPPC application. IPPC referring to the Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control as regulated by the EU Directive bearing that name and forming part of Maltese law since EU accession in 2004.

The IPPC Directive seeks to ensure that there is one integrated process addressing the environmental impacts resulting from a number of industrial processes. The tuna byproduct processing plant is subject to this regulatory process.

The IPPC regulatory process requires the presentation of detailed technical documentation relative to the proposed industrial process, the resulting environmental impacts and the manner in which it is proposed to address these same impacts.

This documentation was compiled and after being examined by ERA an operating permit for the Tuna byproduct processing plant was issued.

The problems started with the commencement of operations which were initiated in order to carry out the commissioning of the supplied equipment. I am informed that the suppliers of the equipment were not entrusted to carry out the commissioning. Apparently, those entrusted with the commissioning did not have sufficient experience: the results achieved so far are indicative enough of this fact.

Someday maybe ERA will commission an investigation into what went wrong and who was responsible for the resulting mess.  This is essential in order to ensure that lessons are learnt by all those involved. This is a mess created by the private sector subject to supervision by ERA! They have managed to mess up a good project.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 18 December 2022

The war on nature is suicidal

If we are to register any significant progress in addressing our quality of life we must once and for all end the war on nature. This has been emphasised by Inger Anderson, the Executive Director of UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) when she was addressing the Conference of the Parties of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, currently in session at Montreal.

This has been also emphasised by a multitude of speakers within other fora, notably those related to climate, most recently in Sharm El Sheikh during the latest Climate Summit.

The Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Convention on Biological Diversity are just two of the many efforts and initiatives of the international community in order to end the continuous human war on nature.

Small steps forward have been made but they are nowhere near being enough in order to have any significant impact in halting the damage done to date as well as reversing its consequences.

It has been an uphill struggle for more than fifty years. It was in Stockholm fifty years ago, in June 1972, that the international community agreed for the first time ever, to recognise the environment as an important issue to be delt with by the global political agenda.

The UN Conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm in 1972 laid the foundations for international environmental governance. The Stockholm Conference is in fact credited with introducing the environment in the contemporary political lexicon.

Opening the United Nations Montreal Biodiversity Conference, this week, Antonio Guterres-UN Secretary General, said that humans are treating nature “as a toilet”. Nature, said Guterres, is humanity’s best friend: without nature, we have nothing, without nature we are nothing!

We threaten nature in many ways: urbanisation, deforestation, agricultural intensification, all forms of pollution, climate change as well as the spread of invasive species. Possibly these are the primary vehicles used in the intensive war waged by humanity against nature.

It is about time that we seek ways to make peace. With nature, however, there is no room for negotiation! We must seek to make peace before nature strikes back with full force. It is already retaliating, and this will definitely get much worse.

There is no possibility to negotiate with nature, her demands are clear and simple: unconditional surrender. We need to change our ways and habits. Nature can be a reliable friend but if transformed into an enemy, it is ruthless, as climate change shows continuously and unequivocally.

Nature is what sustains everything on earth, yet it is declining on a global level. The rate of extinction of species is increasing exponentially.

Expanding protected areas is not enough to arrest nature’s decline. We need to change our behaviour through seriously addressing the various environmental threats. We must limit the spread of invasive species, and halt deforestation. We need to protect agricultural land. It is imperative that we drive some sense into land use planning. We also need to eliminate environmentally harmful subsidies. We need to protect what’s left of the natural resources which we have been provided with!

It is only when our actions match our nice words that we can start achieving the required results. Until then, we inch closer to a collective suicide.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday: 11 December 2022

Mqabba: vittma ta’ sklerożi tal-istituzzjonijiet

Madwar għoxrin sena ilu, l-awtorità responsabbli mill-ippjanar għall-użu tal-art, dakinnhar imsejħa l-MEPA, kienet ippubblikat pjan dwar ir-regolamentazzjoni tal-minerali fil-gżejjer Maltin. Dan id-dokument bl-isem Minerals Subject Plan for the Maltese Islands iġib id-data ta’ Mejju 2003.

Kif mistenni, dan il-Pjan hu dwar il-qafas regolatorju essenzjali biex issir l-estrazzjoni tal-minerali minn ġol-art. Primarjament dan jikkonċerna l-operazzjoni tal-barrieri biex tkun estratta l-ġebla Maltija. Dan hu qasam tal-kawbojs, qasam fejn ir-regolamentazzjoni hi skarsa u l-infurzar prattikament ineżistenti.

Fl-ewwel linji tiegħu, dan il-pjan jitkellem ċar ħafna billi jitkellem dwar il-kunflitt inevitabbli li jirriżulta mill-operazzjoni tal-barrieri. Jemfasizza li fi gżejjer li huma żgħar u b’popolazzjoni li hi iffullata hemm kunflitt mat-turiżmu u l-industrija, kif ukoll kemm mal-iżvilupp kummerċjali kif ukoll dak residenzjali. Hemm impatt ukoll fuq il-ħarsien tar-riżorsi naturali u ta’ dawk kulturali. Li jinħoloq bilanċ bejn il-ħtieġijiet tal-industrija tal-kostruzzjoni għar-riżorsi minerali f’kuntest ta’ żvilupp sostenibbli hi sfida ewlenija, jgħidlina l-pjan. Dan flimkien ma kunsiderazzjonijiet ta’ ippjanar ta’ użu ta’ art u konsiderazzjonijiet ambjentali.

Il-pjan dwar il-minerali jitkellem ukoll fid-dettall dwar l-impatt fuq terzi: jiġifieri l-impatt fuq in-nies, kemm residenti kif ukoll dawk li jkunu fil-viċinanzi, hi x’inhi r-raġuni għal dan: dan jinkludi t-tfal tal-iskola primarja. Specifikament jikkunsidra l-impatti riżultat tal-istorbju u tat-trab li huma ġġenerati mit-tħaddim tal-barrieri, mhux biss mill-ħidma biex ikun estratt il-ġebel, imma ukoll minn attività anċillari.

Il-pjan jirreferi għall-ġenerazzjoni tal-istorbju u jgħid li l-permessi ta’ żvilupp għandhom jindirizzaw dan l-inkonvenjent b’diversi miżuri, fosthom permezz ta’ ilqugħ adegwat (acoustic screening), kontroll tal-ħinijiet tal-operazzjoni tal-barriera, li jkun stabilit il-massimu tal-istorbju permissibli u li l-attività storbjuża tkun l-iktar il-bogħod possibli minn żoni sensittivi.

Il-pjan jitkellem ukoll dwar ir-regolamentazzjoni tal-ġenerazzjoni tat-trab. L-attività li tiġġenera t-trab għandha tkun il-bogħod kemm jista’ jkun minn żoni sensittivi. Hu rakkomandat ukoll mill-pjan li meta jinġemgħa fuq is-sit kwantità ta’ prodotti tal-ġebla (stockpiling) dan ikun mgħotti: dan inaqqas it-tixrid tat-trab u allura jgħin biex ikun indirizzat l-inkonvenjent.

Għandi kopja elettronika ta’ dan il-pjan li kont niżżilt minn fuq is-sit elettroniku tal-Awtorità tal-Ippjanar xi snin ilu. Meta din il-ġimgħa erġajt fittixt, sibt li dan id-dokument sparixxa minn hemm: illum m’għadux aċċessibli fuq is-sit elettroniku tal-awtorità!  Safejn naf jien dan il-pjan għadu fis-seħħ imma, mal-Awtorità tal-Ippjanar diffiċli tgħid: għax qatt ma taf fejn int!

Ftakart f’dan kollu meta f’dawn il-ġranet ġejt ikkuntattjat minn residenti fl-Imqabba minħabba applikazzjoni tal-ippjanar (PA 0350/22) li daħlet reċentement dwar barriera fil-viċinanzi tal-iskola primarja tal-Imqabba.  Din l-applikazzjoni hi dwar attività diversa fil-barriera inkluż tkissir tal-ġebla biex tipproduċi ż-żrar kif ukoll dwar il-ħażna taż-żrar fs-sit (stock piling).

Ir-residenti qalulna, lili u lil Melissa Bagley, (kandidat tal-partit fuq id-distrett elettorali li minnu jifforma parti l-Imqabba) li ilhom jaqilgħu ġo fihom żmien. Bħala riżultat ta’ dan għandhom raġun li joqgħodu lura milli jitkellmu direttament. Bħala partit aħna ser nitkellmu f’isimhom.

Jiena rajt il-file dwar din l-applikazzjoni fuq is-sit elettroniku tal-awtorità tal-ippjanar u nħoss li għandi ngħid pubblikament li jiena mħasseb ħafna bir-reazzjoni tad-Direttorat tas-Saħħa Ambjentali li hi nieqsa minn kull sens ta’ responsabbiltà. Jonqos milli jitkellem dwar l-impatti negattivi fuq in-nies kemm tat-trab fin iġġenerat kif ukoll tal-istorbju. Ma jitkellimx dwar il-ħtieġa li dan ikun ikkontrollat mill-proċess tal-ippjanar innifsu.

L-Awtorità dwar l-Ambjent u r-Riżorsi, min-naħa l-oħra, tistabilixxi numru ta’ kundizzjonijiet li għandhom ikunu osservati in lineja ma’ l-aħjar prattiċi ambjentali. Għandu jkun ċar, iżda li dawn il-miżuri u kundizzjonijiet jeħtieġ  li jkunu partiintegrali kemm minn eventwali permess ta’ żvilupp kif ukoll mill-permess operattiv li jinħareġ mill-ERA innifisha.

Sal-ħin li qed nikteb, id-Dipartiment tal-Edukazzjoni għadu ma fetaħx ħalqu biex jipproteġi lill-istudenti fl-iskola primarja tal-Imqabba li hi daqstant viċin tal-barriera soġġett ta’ din l-applikazzjoni. Ma nafx x’qed jistennew biex jipproteġu lit-tfal Mqabbin mill-istorbju u t-trab fin ġġenerat mill-barriera!

B’mod konvenjenti l-anqas il-Kunsill Lokali tal-Imqabba ma fetaħ ħalqu. Imma dan ma jissorprendi lil ħadd.

Din hi materja serja u gravi li teħtieġ l-attenzjoni tagħna lkoll. Il-barrieri u l-ħidma fihom jinħtieġu li jkunu regolati sewwa biex il-kwalità tal-ħajja ta’ dawk kollha li jgħixu fil-madwar tkun imħarsa bis-serjetà.

Is-skiet, jew in-nuqqas ta’ azzjoni adegwata, tal-awtoritajiet li nsemmi iktar il-fuq hi skandaluża. Din hi sklerożi tal-istituzzjonijiet. Meta l-iktar hemm bżonnhom, dawn jiġġammjaw.

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

Mqabba: a victim of institutional sclerosis

Around twenty years ago, the authority responsible for land use planning, then named MEPA, had published a Minerals Subject Plan for the Maltese Islands. The plan is dated May 2003.

The Subject Plan, as expected, deals with the regulatory framework for mineral extraction, primarily limestone, which was then and still is now, cowboy territory. Regulation is scarce and enforcement in this sector is almost inexistent.

The Subject Plan fired a warning shot in its first lines by pinpointing the inevitable conflicts resulting from the operation of quarries. It emphasises that “in such small and densely populated islands there are inevitable land use conflicts between limestone extraction and tourism, industrial, commercial and residential development, and the preservation of the islands’ natural and cultural resources. Balancing the needs of the construction industry for mineral resources with other planning and environmental policies, in the context of sustainable development is a key challenge for this Mineral Subject Plan and for the day-to-day control of extraction and related activities.”

The Subject Plan considers impacts on third parties. Specifically, it considers the impacts of noise and dust resulting from quarry operations and ancillary activities.

With reference to noise, it states that planning permits will seek to regulate noise impacts through the use of acoustic screening, restricting operating hours, setting of permissible maximum noise levels, locating noisier operations as far as possible from noise sensitive locations and properties and ensuring appropriate stand-off distances between operations and sensitive locations.

On the other hand, the regulation of dust impacts in the said Mineral Subject plan is also fairly detailed in that it is required to site the dust generating activities away from sensitive locations, considering the direction of prevailing winds. Covering of stockpiles is also recommended.

I have an electronic copy of this Subject Plan which I downloaded some time ago from the Planning Authority website. Checking recently, it has apparently mysteriously disappeared: it is no longer accessible on the Planning Authority website! As far as I am aware this Subject Plan is still applicable. When dealing with the Planning Authority, however, one never knows for certain!

All this came to mind when I was recently contacted by a number of Mqabba residents relative to a planning application (PA 0350/22) submitted recently concerning a quarry in the vicinity of the Mqabba Primary School. The application seeks to carry out activities ancillary to quarrying, including crushing and stock piling of stone derived aggregate on site.

Residents, have informed me and Melissa Bagley, party candidate on the electoral district of which Mqabba forms part, that they have been at the receiving end for a long time. As a result, they are reluctant to speak up publicly. ADPD will be taking up their case and speaking on their behalf.

I have gone through the planning application file which is available online and must publicly state that I am shocked at the reactions of the Environmental Health Directorate which fails to make any submissions on the negative impacts of noise and dust generated as a result of quarry operations, and, on the need, to control them through the planning process itself.

The Environment and Resources Authority (ERA), on the other hand, lists a number of conditions to be adhered to in line with best practice environmental measures. It should however be clear that these measures should be an integral part of both an eventual planning permit as well as the standard operational permit issued by ERA itself.

The Department of Education has so far not reacted in order to protect the students at Mqabba Primary School which school almost borders the quarry in question. What is it waiting for to protect Mqabba boys and girls from excessive noise and from continuously inhaling dust particles generated by the quarry operations?

The Mqabba Local Council is also conveniently silent. However, no one is surprised about that.

This is a very serious issue which needs our attention. Quarrying needs adequate regulation and prompt enforcement such that the quality of life of all those in the vicinity is adequately protected.

The silence (or the lack of appropriate action) of the relative public authorities listed above is scandalous. This is institutional sclerosis. When needed most the institutions we have fail to act.

published in the Malta Independent on Sunday : 6 November 2022

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

Planning application PA00777/22 : another mega-development at Marsaskala

(photo is the official Parliamentary voting record of those voting in favour of the rationalisation exercise: that is those voting in favour of extending the building development boundary into what was then ODZ-Outside the Development Zone)

It would be pertinent to remember that on the 26 July 2006 Malta’s Parliament approved a resolution which we normally refer to as the “rationalisation” exercise, as a result of which extensive stretches of land until then outside the development zone (ODZ) were declared as land suitable for development.

The PN parliamentary group, supported the Lawrence Gonzi led government and voted in favour of developing ODZ land whilst ironically the Labour Opposition had then voted against the proposal. This is not just history. It is still affecting our daily lives. Today, 16 years later some are realising for the first time how land use planning was screwed by the then Environment Minister George Pullicino!

Three of the Members of Parliament who had then voted in favour of developing ODZ land are still MPs today.

Their names come to mind when considering the latest mega-development proposal, this time at iż-Żonqor on the outskirts of Marsaskala, through development application PA00777/22.  The development application this time concerns a 5,000 square metre area of rural land over which it is proposed to construct 135 residential units and 180 basement garages. These will be spread over 10 different levels, four of them below ground floor level after excavating a substantial amount of rock.

The basic decision permitting today’s proposed development was taken on the 26 July 2006 when the rationalisation exercise was approved by Parliament on the proposal of a PN-led government. No studies were then carried out as to the environmental impacts of the development resulting from the rationalisation exercise. Specifically, the cumulative impact of the development proposed was ignored contrary to the then emerging environmental acquis of the EU relative to the assessment of plans and programmes, known as the SEA Directive (Strategic Environment Assessment Directive) which Directive entered into force on the days immediately following the approval by the Maltese Parliament of the rationalisation exercise.

The basic question to ask is whether we really need such large-scale developments. Why are we determined as a country to develop every square centimetre of our land? Isn’t it about time that a moratorium on such large-scale development enters in force?

The rationalisation exercise should be scrapped at the earliest and all rationalised land returned to its former ODZ status the soonest. This is what we should expect of any government which (unashamedly) proclaims that the environment and our quality of life is now its priority.

It has taken our residents 16 years to become sensitised to the large-scale havoc which land use planning has degenerated to.  Throughout these 16 years all genuine environmentalists have been pointing this out. Unfortunately, some only react when large scale development is very close to their backyard, otherwise they do not care. The writing has been on the wall for a number of years, yet it was ignored for quite some time.

One mega-project after the other has been eroding our quality of life, the latest one being proposal PA00777/22 which goes by this description: To excavate and construct 180 garages at basement level, 2 Class 4B shops, and 135 overlying units. The site is at iż-Zonqor, Marsaskala, but it should be everyone’s concern.

It is about time that we stop all this in the same way that the proposed Marina at Marsaskala had to be shelfed, hopefully for good!

published on Malta Independent on Sunday : 5 June 2022

Urban open spaces and climate change

After a free-for-all building spree during which the development of multiple private gardens in our towns and villages were targeted, mostly successfully, our towns and villages have been promised open spaces. This, it is being stated, will bring nature closer to people! A shining sun which will hopefully produce less hay!

The implementation of the first such proposal for an open space is nearing conclusion. An open space in the Tar-Rabbat Housing Estate in Ħamrun has been partially built-up to produce an artificial garden on concrete stilts! The area below the concrete stilts is being reserved for parking of cars! This is definitely not an open space.

The open spaces which we need should not add to the concrete jungle which has developed unabated around us over the years. The open spaces should be free from any form of construction and should be the opportunity to squeeze out cars from the urban environment, preferably relegating them to the periphery of our towns and villages. The open spaces are meant to re-introduce nature into our lives, even if in a very limited way.

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 availability of funds to introduce open spaces in our urban areas is a unique opportunity to redesign the urban environment such that it becomes people-friendly. It is also an opportunity to bring urban planning in line with the requirements of climate change mitigation policy.

Earlier this month the latest report on climate change was published by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC). The document, almost 3000 pages long, emphasises that without profound changes to our lifestyle the Paris 2015 Climate Summit objectives will not be attained.

As islands, Malta and Gozo should be at the forefront in the international climate change debate. Climate change is already here. Extremes of temperature, long periods of drought or sudden floods are no longer a rare occurrence in the Maltese islands. We have experienced this repeatedly over the past years.

A sea-level rise will impact our coastal areas. Large stretches of our coastline are developed and used for residential purposes or else they are utilised for the maritime and tourism industries. A sea level rise, dependent on its extent, would severely impact all this activity. It is in our interest that any sea level rise resulting from climate change would be minimal, if at all. This can only happen if the climate mitigation targets agreed to at the Paris Summit are adhered to the soonest.

One of the ideas doing the rounds in the climate change debate is to rethink our urban design strategy as one of the basic tools with which to combat the climate crisis. The idea crystallised as “the 15-minute city” by Carlos Moreno, an architect advising the Paris Mayor, entails turning current urban planning on its head to ensure that all our needs are available not more than 15 minutes away on foot or by bike! Consequently, our dependency on the car would be done away with, as a result even claiming back our streets. The open spaces initiative could fit in perfectly within the parameters of the “15-minute city”.

Can we reassess the nature and quality of our urban lifestyle within this framework?

The Covid-19 pandemic has given most of us a taste of working from home. If this could become a permanent feature of our urban lifestyle, some of us would not need not travel to work every day. This would address and potentially reduce our addiction to the car. Over a period of time this would impact our carbon emissions.

Our contribution to climate change mitigation as a result of which we can accelerate our path to carbon neutrality could be achieved without impacting our mobility. Through a judicious use of public transport, and the facilitation of other sustainable mobility options our mobility can in fact be substantially improved as a result.

Come October all public transport will be free of charge. Hopefully it will also be reliable and efficient. If adequately planned this could be a turning point in climate change mitigation measures as over a period of time it can lead to a reduction of cars from our roads. Initially such a reduction would necessarily be of a temporary nature. Eventually we can move towards a permanent change.

Within this context open spaces adequately planned have a pivotal role. They improve our quality of life by bringing it closer to nature in our 15-minute cities.

Published in The Malta Independent on Sunday: 24 April 2022