Ħerba mill-ballut ta’ Ħal-Lija

Is-siġar tal-ballut f’Ħal-Lija dejquhom! Għamlu ħerba biex iwessgħu t-triq, biex jagħmlu l-wisa’ għal iktar karozzi. Bħal dak li qalu li m’hawnx biżżejjed minnhom! Għamlu ħerba għal xejn.

Kif jispjega l-ambjentalist veteran Alfred Baldacchino, kien hemm soluzzjonijiet oħra jekk riedu li bil-fors iwessgħu t-triq. Setgħu faċilment salvaw dawn is-siġar, kieku riedu. Uħud minn dawn is-siġar, probabbilment kellhom iktar minn 100 sena.

Sadanittant, l-Awtoritá dwar l-Ambjent u r-Riżorsi tibqa’ ċassa.

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Local Councils, cleaning the financial mess

localcouncils

 

The National Audit Office, last December, published an unprecedented  report entitled “Report by the Auditor General on the workings of Local Government”. The 294 page document examines the financial statements pertaining to financial year 2013 and lists various shortcomings in the financial administration of local government.

During 2013, thirty seven of the local councils registered a deficit, whilst some councils did not follow the required procurement procedures. Some of these faults have their root cause in the fact that local councillors  are not trained adequately to handle their responsibilities. They require training, both before they contest an election  as well as after the election itself. They need to be made more aware of their responsibilities. Training of our local councillors (and more so mayors) is undoubtedly not an easy task. It is, in fact, quite a challenge.

There were also a number of policy decisions which, over the years, have not made matters any easier. Understandably, the Local Government Auditors do not examine the matter in any depth, as it falls outside their brief.

A case in point is the Public Private Partnership launched through Memo 45/2010 issued by the Department of Local Government on 22 March 2010. This initiative started off on a positive note. Government then decided  to attend to the issue of dilapidated roads, thereby tackling one of the major complaints in all localities.

Various funds were made available to local councils for this purpose. Additionally part of  the statutory allocation received by local councils annually was ring-fenced such that it was only usable for road works. These funds, according to Parliamentary Question 30314, replied to by the then Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi on 21 November  2011, amounted to a total of €15 million and were made available to the  47 local councils which had expressed their interest and submitted the required application.

The problem however, was that Government only funded  30% of the expenses directly. The remaining 70 per cent of the required funds had to be disbursed by local councils from their own resources. These included savings made from road maintenance costs, which were justifiably rerouted to fund the resurfacing exercise.

The bottom line however, was that what should have been a central government responsibility in its entirety was shifted onto local councils, with central government only  footing 30 per cent of the bill when it should have forked out the remaining 70 too. Whilst at face value, a 30 per cent subvention may seem substantial, in reality, it was not.  Local councils were desperate to improve the state of the roads in their localities and most of them did not think twice about accepting government’s offer to carry out substantial road works in 2010 and 2011 and spreading the payment of their bills over 8 years, in line, with what was provided for in Memo 45/2010. It is this state of affairs that has led to the financial mess that a number of local councils find themselves in currently.  In fact, the National Audit Office reports that:  “during the 2013 financial year, 37 local councils registered a deficit.”

The point to be made is: is it ethical to place local councils in this position, such that councillors in 47 localities made budgetary commitments of local council finances for a period of 8 years? Councillors elected after 2011 in these 47 localities still had their statutory responsibilities but the financial resources  enabling them to honour their responsibilities were severely depleted. This is  governance at its worst, made worse only by the fact that it was officially sanctioned by the government of the day.

Local councils have very little resources to work with.  The minute budgetary increase voted by Parliament for the current financial year is obviously welcome, but in no way does it compensate for the exponential increase in costs incurred by local councils throughout the past years.

Its fine to insist that local ouncils should ensure that those providing them with services deal properly with their employees. However, to be in a better position to ensure that contractors utilising labour subject to precarious employment conditions are not engaged by local councils it stands to reason that local councils must be able to offer attractive rates of pay.  Otherwise, it will be more of the same procurement exercises, leading to the acceptance of the cheapest bidder.  The cheapest bidder, more often than not, is able to submit the lowest  bid due to its low labour costs.

Local councils have very clear and specific responsibilities. They can only shoulder them if councillors are properly trained and the councils adequately funded.

 

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday – 15 February 2015

Malta’s Nine Ghost Towns

The 2005 Census had revealed that 53,136 residential units in Malta were vacant. This was an increase of 17,413 units over the 35,723 vacant residential units identified during the 1995 Census. Faced with an increase of over 48 per cent in 10 years, a responsible government would have contained the development boundaries as existing supply can satisfy the demand for residential accommodation for many years to come.

In 2006, just nine months after the 2005 Census, the Nationalist Party-led Government defied common sense and, instead of applying the brakes, it further increased the possibilities for building development through three specific decisions. Through the rationalisation process, the PN-led Government extended the boundaries of development in all localities. Then it facilitated the construction of penthouses by relaxing the applicable conditions. If this were not enough, it increased the height limitations in various localities, intensifying development in existing built-up areas.

As a result of increasing the permissible heights, sunlight was blocked off low-lying residential buildings in the affected areas.

These residences were using sunlight to heat water through solar water heaters or to generate electricity through photovoltaic panels installed on their rooftops.

They can now discard their investments in alternative energy thanks to the PN-led Government’s land use policies!

The result of these myopic land use planning policies further increased the number of vacant properties, which is estimated as being in excess of 70,000 vacant residential units. (Mepa chairman Austin Walker, in an interview in June 2010, had referred to an estimated 76,000 vacant residential properties.)

The estimated total of vacant residential properties is equivalent to nine times the size of the residential area of Birkirkara, the largest locality in Malta, which, in 2005, had 7,613 residential units.

These ghost towns over the years have gobbled up resources to develop or upgrade an infrastructure that is underutilised. Spread all over the Maltese islands, these ghost towns have required new roads, extending the drainage system, extending the utility networks and street lighting as well as various other services provided by local councils.

The funds channelled to service ghost towns could have been better utilised to upgrade the infrastructure in the existing localities over the years.

The above justifies calls for an urgent revision of development boundaries through a reversal of the 2006 rationalisation exercise where land included for development in 2006 is still uncommitted.

Similarly, the relaxation of height limitations and the facilitated possibility to construct penthouses should be reversed forthwith.

All this is clearly in conflict with the efforts being made by the Government itself, assisted with EU funds, to increase the uptake of solar water heaters and photovoltaic panels.

I am aware of specific cases where decisions to install photovoltaic panels have had to be reversed as a result of the development permitted on adjacent property subsequent to the 2006 height relaxation decisions.

In its electoral manifesto for the forthcoming election, AD, the Green party, will be proposing a moratorium on large-scale development in addition to the reversal of the above policies as it is unacceptable that the construction industry keeps gobbling up land and, as a result, adding to the stock of vacant property.

The market has been unable to deal with the situation and, consequently, the matter has to be dealt by a government that is capable of taking tough decisions in the national interest.

Neither the PN nor the Labour Party are capable of taking such decisions as it has been proven time and again that both of them are hostages to the construction industry.

The slowdown of the activities of the construction industry is the appropriate time to consider the parameters of its required restructuring. It is clear that the construction industry has to be aided by the State to retrain its employees in those areas of operation where lack of skills exist.

There are three such areas: traditional building trades, road construction and maintenance as well as marine engineering.

Traditional building skills are required primarily to facilitate rehabilitation works of our village cores and to properly maintain our historical heritage. Our roads require more properly-trained personnel so that standards of road construction and maintenance are improved and works carried out in time. Our ports and coastal defences require a well-planned maintenance programme and various other adaptation works as a result of the anticipated sea-level variations caused by climate change.

The construction industry employs about 11,000 persons. It is imperative that its restructuring is taken in hand immediately.

In addition to halting more environmental damage, a long overdue restructuring will also serve to mitigate the social impacts of the slowdown on the families of its employees through retraining for alternative jobs both in the construction industry itself and elsewhere.

The so-called ‘social policy’ of the PN and the PL have neglected these families for years on end.

 

published in The Times on 29 September 2012

Ghadira Report Released by AD

ghadira-nature-reserve

Following a formal request which I made to MEPA on behalf of AD in terms of the Aarhus Convention (access to environmental information) MEPA has this morning released the report entitled  “Proposed Review of Ghadira Road Options Nodes NA3-NA4”. This was  produced in 2005 by AIS and commissioned by the Transport Authority.

This report is being released by AD in order that the public be better informed. A transparent government ould have released it around three years ago !

Raqda Twila

Austin Gatt (Ministru tat-Trasport) ħareġ direttivi lill-Awtorita’ dwar it-Trasport (ADT) biex tkun l-Awtorita’ innifisha li tieħu ħsieb it-testijiet meħtieġa biex jiġu ċċertifikati x-xogħolijiet fuq it-toroq.

Ix-xogħol għandu jsir sewwa. Min ma jagħmilx xogħol sewwa għal fuq il-black list qal Austin Gatt.

M’hemm xejn ħażin f’dak li qal Austin.

Li hu ħażin huwa li kien hemm il-ħtieġa li jgħidu. Jirrifletti x’tip ta’ management għandha l-ADT. Għax jekk dawn l-affarijiet ovvji kien hemm ħtieġa li jingħadu, jidher li kien hemm min ilu rieqed raqda twila.

Biex tara d-direttiva ghafas hawn: Ministerial Policy Directive 28/04/2008