One Million euro every day

The subsidies being currently forked out by the public exchequer relative to the current price of fuel and electricity are substantial. Until mid-July subsidised fuel was also available for use by large seacraft. Through a legal notice effective on the 29 July the Finance Ministry tweaked the subsidy rules to stop this. This was a correct step to take.

This tweaking of fuel subsidy rules was a good step in diverting subsidies from being mis-used for non-essential purposes.  The subsidies currently applied to fuel and electricity exceed the sum of one million euro per day. In fact, they are getting closer to one and a half million euro (€1,500,000) per day.

Prime Minister Robert Abela is on record as stating that it is not easy to limit subsidies from being used by the wealthy and the wasteful. I agree that decision-taking is never easy. Especially when limiting access to benefits such that those who are not in need and the wasteful do not end up being subsidised by the state!

It is however possible to seriously consider limiting the fuel and electricity subsidies to be used only by those who need them. Such a limitation would ensure that more funds are available for those who really need them. It would reduce the need to curtail expenditure on education or other useful areas/projects to make good for the subsidies.

Reducing expenditure on university education, as government is planning to do through a reduction in its operational budget, penalises future generations. Future generations are already burdened with the accumulated national debt, with the depletion of natural resources and with the continuous ruining of our national heritage. We should not make matters worse than they already are.

Existing subsidies could be further tweaked.

Subsidies on petrol and diesel could be reduced until they are completely eliminated. This would have the additional benefit of less cars on the road as increased petrol/diesel prices would inevitably shift more of us to make more use of public transport. We should remember that a substantial amount of private car use can be avoided as it is for short distances. This has been clearly emphasised in the National Transport Master Plan which states that 50 per cent of car trips in the Maltese Islands are for short distances of less than fifteen minutes duration. Public Transport can offer the reasonable alternative in these circumstances, in particular being free of charge as from next month! It must however improve its reliability as well as its efficiency. It should also aim to reach as many localities as possible, including through an efficient night service.

In these circumstances reducing gradually and eventually removing subsidies on petrol/diesel could be the way forward.

The issue remains as to those economic areas which are dependent on petrol/diesel. In these cases, government should identify suitable focused aid which addresses the specific needs of the economic areas under consideration.

Similar considerations should apply to subsidies currently applicable to electricity.

Basic domestic use of electricity should remain subsidised. Beyond that, however, it would make sense to focus the required aid to industry and business in a focused manner, in tailor-made fashion. This would make much more sense than a blanket policy of subsidies across the board.

Increased emphasis on assistance to generate and make use of renewal energy should continue to be a priority. An increased effort must be made to generate more renewable energy through an efficient use of the roofs of public buildings as well as, wherever possible, adequate use of public open spaces. Coupled with an increased expenditure on improvements to the electricity distribution system this could reduce the impacts of this energy crisis on the Maltese taxpayer in a substantial manner.

Helping those in need is a priority. In should however be done in a sustainable manner! Spending more than one million euro per day on these subsidies is definitely not sustainable.

A sustainable vision is the way forward. It is in the interest of all. This is in the interest of both the present as well as future generations. The choices we need to make are tough. It is only if we get our priorities right that we can plot the way for a sustainable future.

published on The Malta Independent on Sunday: 18 September 2022

Ftit ħsibijiet dwar il-baġit li jmiss

F’dawn il-ġranet, fil-Ministeru tal-Finanzi jkun qed isir ix-xogħol preparattiv dwar il-baġit li normalment ikunu imħabbar matul ix-xahar ta’ Ottubru.

Il-Ministru tal-Finanzi, mid-dehra diġa ddeċieda li jagħti l-aħħar irtokki biex ikompli jiffinanzja l-klijenteliżmu fl-Air Malta.  Dan hu proġett fit-tul li l-ħidma dwaru ilha għaddejja fuqu mill-predeċessuri tiegħu. Proġett li jinvolvi iktar miljuni ta’ euro ġejjin mit-taxxi tagħna li ser ikunu moħlija biex jonoraw wegħdiet politiċi li saru matul il-kampanja elettorali tal-elezzjoni ġenerali li għada kif għaddiet. Din hi irregolarità oħra bħat-tqassim tac-ċekkijiet bieb bieb waqt il-kampanja elettorali. Monument “xieraq” għall-klijenteliżmu politiku.

L-għoli tal-ħajja spara l-fuq, bla kontroll. Probabbilment li l-COLA, ż-żieda għall-għoli tal-ħajja għall-pagi,salarji u pensjonijiet, li titħabbar bħala parti mill-baġit li jmiss, tkun madwar €10 fil-ġimgħa. Il-Ministru Clyde Caruana diġa qal li din kienet tkun sostanzjalment għola minn hekk kieku l-Gvern ma issussidjax il-petrol/dijsil u l-kontijiet tal-elettriku u l-ilma.

Hemm ħtieġa li niddiskutu ftit iktar dawn is-sussidji biex ikunu aħjar, iktar effettivi u li jilħqu lil min verament jeħtieġhom. Fiċ-ċirkustanzi attwali hi politika tajba li l-użu bażiku jkun issussidjat, imma mhux għaqli li fuq tul ta’ żmien dan jibqa’ sussidju sħiħ għall-konsum kollu. Għax is-sussidji mhux qed imorru għand il-vulnerabbli biss: min mhux vulnerabbli għandu bżonn inqas tas-sussidji tal-lum.  Is-sussidji jeħtieġ li jkunu ffukati jekk irridu li l-pajjiż ikun ta’ għajnuna utli għall-vulnerabbli. Għax ir-riżorsi tal-pajjiż ma jippermettux li nibqgħu sejrin kif aħna fit-tul.

Xi ġranet ilu, s-sussidju fuq il-fuel li jieħdu l-inġenji tal-baħar tneħħa. Dan hu sewwa u seta ġie evitat mill-bidu. Imma dan mhux biżżejjed.  It-tnaqqis gradwali tas-sussidji fuq il-petrol u d-dijżil mhux biss inaqqas il-karozzi mit-toroq u jtejjeb il-kwalità tal-arja, imma fuq kollox jagħmilha possibli li iktar finanzi jkunu allokati għal oqsma oħra li tant jeħtieġu l-attenzjoni.

Il-Kamra tal-Kummerċ għamlet tajjeb li tkellmet dwar ftit iktar ħsieb fuq kif ikunu issussidjati l-kontijiet tal-elettriku u l-ilma. Anke f’dan il-qasam hu l-użu bażiku li għandu jkun issussidjat. Sussidji iktar minn hekk ifisser li anke l-użu esaġerat tal-elettriku u l-ilma qed ikun issussidjat. Dan hu użu ħażin ta’ fondi pubbliċi lijista’ jkun indirizzat bla diffikultà.

Naqbel perfettament ma’ Josef Bugeja tal-GWU li iż-żieda għall-għoli tal-ħajja għandha titħallas kollha lil min jaħdem (u lill-pensjonanti). Il-COLA mhiex, wara kollox, żieda fil-paga imma tipprova tagħmel tajjeb għall-impatt tal-inflazzjoni fuq il-paga, salarju jew pensjoni.

Imma tibqa’ l-ħtieġa ta’ bidla mill-qiegħ dwar il-politika li tikkonċerna l-pagi (incomes policy) biex din tkun dejjem iktar relevanti għaż-żmien li qed ngħixu fih.

Ilna ħafna nitkellmu dwar il-ħtieġa li l-baskett ta’ oġġetti u servizzi li jservu biex fuqhom tinħadem il-paga minima u l-COLA jkun revedut biex ikun assigurat li dan jirrifletti l-ħtiġijiet tal-lum. L-istudji li ippubblikat il-Caritas tul dawn l-aħħar snin jiffukaw eżattament fuq hekk. Minn dawn l-istudji joħroġ ċar li reviżjoni tal-baskett ta’ oġġetti u servizzi jwassal għal żieda inevitabbli ta’ 40 fil-mija fil-paga minima kurrenti. Li dan ikun indirizzat bla iktar dewmien hu essenzjali. Ifisser, skond dawn l-istudji tal-Caritas, li paga minima diċenti għandha tkun ta’ madwar l- €14,000 fis-sena.

L-inflazzjoni  sostanzjali ta’ din is-sena jfisser li l-vulnerabbli fostna għaddejjin minn żmien diffiċli. F’dawn iċ-ċirkustanzi ikun mill-iktar raġjonevoli li l-COLA titħallas darbtejn fis-sena: fl-1 ta’ Lulju u l-1 ta’ Jannar. Dan ma jżidx l-ammont li jitħallas imma billi dan jinqasam fi tnejn, u parti titħallas sitt xhur qabel, inaqqas ħafna l-piz fuq spallejn il-vulnerabbli.

Għadna qed nistennew lill-Onorevoli Ministru tal-Finanzi biex iwettaq dak li wiegħed is-sena l-oħra bl-introduzzjoni ta’ mekkaniżmu speċjali li jipproteġi lill-vulnerabbli mill-impatti tal-għoli tal-ħajja. Għadna nistennew, imma l-Onorevoli Ministru jidher li hu iktar ippreokkupat biex jonora l-wegħdiet konnessi mal-klijenteliżmu politiku fl-Air Malta.

ippubblikat fuq : Illum: 21 t’Awwissu 2022

Some budgetary considerations

In the Finance Ministry this is the time when they gear up to prepare next year’s budget which is normally presented sometime in October.

The Hon Minister for Finance has apparently already decided to proceed with the finishing touches to further finance clientelism in Air Malta. This is a long-term project what they call “works in progress”. It involves more millions of euro in taxpayer’s money down the drain to honour political pledges made during the March 2022 general election. This is another corrupt practice together with the distribution of cheques to every household during the general election campaign. A “fitting” monument to political clientelism.

The cost-of-living is out of control. Most probably that the COLA, the cost-of-living adjustment to wages, salaries and pensions, announced during the budget speech will be around €10 per week. Minister Clyde Caruana states that it could be substantially more if government did not subsidise fuel and electricity bills.

The blanket subsidises of fuel and electricity bills need to be revisited in order that they are more effective in supporting the vulnerable. In the present circumstances it is good policy to subsidise basic use but it does not make sense for a prolonged blanket policy of subsidies. The current subsidies are not going into the pockets of the vulnerable alone. Those who are not amongst the vulnerable can do without most of the current subsidies. Subsidises need to be focused such that they are of help to the most vulnerable. The country does not have the resources to go on in this way for too long a time.

Some days ago, the fuel subsidisation policy was amended in order that the fuelling of pleasure seacraft was at last excluded from further benefitting from the use of subsidised fuel. This is however not enough. The gradual reduction of subsidies of petrol and diesel would not only ease traffic from our roads and improve the quality of our air: they would also make substantial finance available for other areas.

The Chamber of Commerce has also rightfully pointed out that subsidising water and electricity bills across the board needs to be revisited. Even in this area it is basic use which should be subsidised. Subsidising across the board signifies that excessive use is subsidised too. This is a misuse of public funds which we can easily do without.

Josef Bugeja (GWU) is spot on in insisting that the cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) should be paid out in full to all employees (and pensioners). It has to be underlined that COLA is not an increase in wages and salaries. It merely makes good for the impact of inflation on wages, salaries and pensions during the past year.

There is however need for a long overdue overhaul of the incomes policy to make it more relevant to this day and age.

It is about time that the basket of goods and services used to compute the minimum wage and the COLA is revised in order to ensure that it reflects todays needs. The Caritas studies throughout the years have made this basic contribution to the debate: revising the basket of goods and services would identify a 40 per cent shortfall in the current minimum wage. The sooner this is addressed the better. On the basis of the Caritas studies, currently a decent minimum wage should be around €14,000 per annum.

The substantial inflation throughout this year signifies that the vulnerable amongst us are passing though a very difficult patch. In such circumstances it would be reasonable to consider having COLA paid twice a year: 1st July and 1st January. This would not increase the amount due but by splitting it in two, and bringing forward part of its payment by six months, would reduce the burden shouldered by the most vulnerable amongst us.

We are still waiting for the Hon Minister of Finance to honour his commitment made this time last year to address the cost-of-living impacts on the vulnerable through some special mechanism. We are still waiting, unfortunately, as the Hon Minister is more preoccupied in servicing clientelism at Air Malta.

published on The Malta Independent on Sunday: 21 August 2022

Dritt ta’ aċċess għax-xemx

Id-dritt li jkollna aċċess għax-xemx reġa’ għal darba oħra qed jissemma b’insistenza. Dawk fostna li huma konxji li l-użu tax-xemx għall-ħtiġijiet tagħna jagħmel kemm sens ambjentali kif ukoll sens ekonomiku qiegħed dejjem jiżdied. Sfortunatament huma ostakolati mill-politika dwar l-użu tal-art li hi interessata biss biex taqdi lir-rebgħa li, jippruvaw jgħidulna li hi żvilupp.

Li nagħmlu użu mill-enerġija li tiġġenera x-xemx jiddependi minn dak li jkun hemm jostakola l-wasla tar-raġġi tax-xemx meta jkollna ħtieġa tagħhom! Meta l-parti l-kbira tal-pjani lokali kienu approvati fis-sajf tal-2006, kien żdied bil-kbir l-għoli tal-bini permissibli f’diversi lokalitajiet. F’xi każi l-ammont ta’ sulari li jistgħu jinbnew żdiedu minn 2 għal 5, inkluż penthouse. Is-sitwazzjoni hi agħar fejn jista’ jkun hemm garaxxijiet li jkunu parzjalment taħt il-livell tal-triq (semi-basement). Din il-bidla f’dak li jista’ jinbena effettwat ħafna żoni fejn kien hemm bini b’żewġ sulari.

L-impatt ta’ din il-bidla fl-għoli permissibli tal-bini qiegħed jiżdied biż-żmien għax issa qed isir żvilupp mill-ġdid ta’ bosta propjetajiet li ilhom ftit ta’ żmien li nbnew. Dan qed joħloq ħafna dellijiet fuq bosta djar residenzjali fl-ibliet u l-irħula tagħna. Bħala riżultat ta’ dan il-pannelli fotovoltajċi u l-istallazzjonijiet li jsaħħnu l-ilma bix-xemx (solar water heaters) stallati fuq il-bjut ta’ bosta residenzi issa qegħdin fid-dell għall-ħin twil u ġew ma jiswew xejn. Dawn huma investimenti li għamlu ħafna familji Maltin li ġew issagrifikati fuq l-altar tar-rebgħa tal-hekk imsejjaħ żvilupp. Sussidji użati bħala għajnuna biex niġġeneraw l-enerġija mix-xemx, inkluż dawk li oriġinaw minn fondi Ewropej, f’numru mhux żgħir ta’ każi spiċċaw moħlija.

Dan kollu hu riżultat ta’ politika dwar l-ippjanar tal-użu tal-art bla viżjoni fit-tul. Politika li falliet biex tqis u tindirizza impatti ovvji. B’mod speċifiku hi riżultat li teżamina l-proposta dwar l-għoli permissibli tal-bini fid-dawl tal-proċeduri stabiliti mid-direttiva tal-Unjoni Ewropea dwar l-istima ta’ l-effetti ta’ ċerti pjanijiet u programmi fuq l-ambjent (Strategic Environment Assessment Directive). Din hi direttiva li tfittex li teżamina politika (policy), pjani u programmi biex ikun stabilit u eżaminat l-impatt ambjentali tagħhom.

Dawk minnha li huma familjari ma kif taħdem u ħadmet l-Awtorità tal-Ippjanar jafu li l-Pjani Lokali ġew approvati bl-għaġġla fis-sajf tal-2006. Dan sar l-għaliex iktar dewmien kien ikun ifisser illi dawn il-pjani kienu jkun soġġetti għal eżami dwar l-impatti ambjentali tagħhom skond kif tipprovdi d-direttiva tal-Unjoni Ewropea dwar l-istima ta’ l-effetti ta’ ċerti pjanijiet u programmi fuq l-ambjent (Strategic Environment Assessment Directive). Inevitabilment kien jirriżulta minn dan l-eżami li ż-żieda fil-għoli tal-bini li seta jingħata l-permess kien ser ikollu impatt negattiv fuq il-ġenerazzjoni tal-elettriku mix-xemx, kif fil-fatt qed jiġri llum! Dan l-impatt kien ikollu jkun indirizzat u l-għoli tal-bini kien ikollu jonqos.

Kellna parti mill-Gvern taħdem favur il-ħtieġa li nagħmlu użu mix-xemx biex niġġeneraw enerġija nadifa. Imma kellna parti oħra mill-Gvern li kienet ostaġġ tal-lobby tal-iżviluppaturi li riedu iktar spazju fejn jistgħu jiżviluppaw. Il-bqija nafu x’ġara. Dak l-ispazju issa qed jiġi żviluppat u bħala riżultat spiċċajna bil-pannelli fid-dell fuq il-bjut!

Iktar kmieni din il-ġimgħa, fil-Parlament, Miriam Dalli, Ministru għall-Enerġija, l-Intrapriża u l-Iżvilupp Sostenibbli fi tweġiba għal mistoqsija parlamentari ta’ Ryan Callus kelliemi tal-Opposizzjoni dwar l-Enerġija qalet li l-Gvern għaddej b’konsultazzjonijiet interni dwar dan kollu.

Tant ilna niddiskutu dan kollu li mhux nifhem x’għandha f’moħħha l-Onorevoli Ministru. Fil-fatt ftit hemm possibilitajiet x’jiġu kkunsidrati.

L-iktar possibilità ovvja hi li fejn hu possibli jitreġġa’ lura l-għoli permissibli tal-bini għal dak li kien fl-2006. Dan imma, hu diffiċli biex isir, u kieku kellu jsir immedjatament tasal talba għal kumpens ta’ miljuni ta’ euro.

Hu possibli li jkunu introdotti drittijiet dwar l-aċċess għax-xemx f’bini ġdid. Dan għandu jsir immedjatament. Hu possiblili li jkunu emendati r-regoli tal-ippjanar b’mod li jkun assigurat illi fil-bini ġdid, b’mod partikolari fil-bini ta’ flats, ikun possibli li minn fuq il-bjut tagħhom tkun ġġenerata l-enerġija mix-xemx. Dan għandu jkun biżżejjed u jagħmel tajjeb għall-konsum tal-elettriku fil-blokk tal-flats kollu. Dan ikun ifisser li l-arja ma tinżammx mill-iżviluppatur iżda tkun parti mill-blokk f’idejn is-sidien tal-flats biex fuqha jistallaw pannelli foto-voltajiċi. Dan jassigura li kull blokk ġdid ta’ flats ikun carbon neutral, jiġifieri jiġġenera elettriku mix-xemx daqs kemm ikun ikkunsmat. Il-pannelli b’hekk jieħdu post il-penthouse.

B’hekk nistgħu nibdew bil-mod insewwu l-ħsara li saret.

Ippubblikat fuq Illum : il-Ħadd 21 ta’ Frar 2021

Solar rights and planning wrongs

Solar rights are once more in the public debate. The number of those aware that utilising solar energy for our needs makes both environmental and economic sense is on the increase. Unfortunately, they are being obstructed by land use planning policy which is only interested in serving greed, camouflaged as development.

The utilisation of the sun’s energy is dependent on what gets in the way of the sun’s rays when we need them!  When most of the Local Plans were approved way back in summer of 2006, the permissible heights of building development in a multitude of areas were substantially increased. At times this increase was from 2 to 5 floors, including a penthouse level. It is worse where semi-basement garages are permissible. This change was in particular applied in respect of large areas with a previous predominance of two floored terraced houses. 

The impact of this change in the permissible height limitation is increasing in severity with time as the redevelopment of old properties is being gradually taken in hand. This is resulting in the shadowing of an ever-increasing number of residential units in a number of residential areas. As a result, solar water heaters and photo voltaic panels installed on a number of roofs in the past years, are now in the shade for a considerable amount of time and consequently are practically useless. Investments made by a number of our families have been sacrificed on the altar of development greed. Subsidies (including those originating from EU funds) which were utilised to assist the tapping of solar energy in a substantial number of cases have thus been thrown down the drain.

This is the result of myopic land use planning which failed to consider obvious impacts. Specifically, it is the result of the failure to subject the proposed height relaxation planning policies to the EU Strategic Environment Assessment Directive. The Strategic Environment Assessment Directive seeks to examine policies, plans and programmes in order to ensure that their environmental aspects are effectively considered.

Those of us familiar with the workings of the Planning Authority are aware that most of the Local Plans were rushed through to approval during the summer of 2006. This was done as any further delay would have made them subject to Strategic Environment Assessment procedures which would have inevitably highlighted the impact of height relaxation on the generation of solar energy. As a result, the conflict with the need to have solar energy generated would have been highlighted and most probably addressed.

While one section of government was encouraging one and all on the need to tap the sun’s rays to generate clean and renewable energy, another section, hostage to the development lobby was obstructing this and pushing forward their need for more space to develop! The rest is history. That space is currently being developed today, in the process obstructing the further generation of renewable energy on our rooftops.

In Parliament, earlier this week Minister for Energy, Enterprise and Sustainable Development Miriam Dalli in reply to a Parliamentary Question from Ryan Callus, spokesperson for Energy on behalf of the Opposition, stated that government was holding internal discussions on the matter.

The matter has been discussed many times to date so I cannot decipher exactly what Minister Miriam Dalli has in mind. There are in fact very few possible options which can be considered.

The most obvious option is to revise as much as possible the height relaxation carried out in 2006. This will be very difficult to carry out, and, if done, it will be immediately followed-up by a request for compensation running into many millions of euro.

Alternatively, one can seek to introduce solar rights on new buildings without further delay. It is possible that planning policy is amended to ensure that all new properties, in particular blocks of flats, should generate sufficient electricity to cater for the number of units in the new block, thus ensuring carbon neutrality. Such a measure would essentially require that the roof is owned together with the individual units in order that owners of the said units may install photo voltaic panels. Consequently, it would signify that the space which till now has been utilised for the development of penthouses would henceforth be reserved for the generation of renewable energy.

In so doing a history of planning wrongs would commence the long and difficult road of correction.

Published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 21 February 2021

Beyond the trees

The public debate of the Central Link project is currently concentrated on the manner in which it will impact the tree population along its route. It is an important discussion because it is concentrating on one of the visible impacts of the project. The trees should definitely by protected and preferably increased in number.

However the number of trees impacted is just an (important) detail. There are other “important details” which need to be considered, amongst which the agricultural land to be taken up, the emissions – which need to be reduced, in particular the minute particulate matter- as well as noise pollution.

Little discussion has, however, ensued on the basic question: do we need the proposed improvement of the road network?

To answer this basic issue, we need to consider the different options available to facilitate sustainable mobility around our islands. These are options that are available to each and every one of us, but do we make use of them?

Why do we make use of private cars for very short distances? Are we aware of the fact that around 50 per cent of journeys in private cars on our roads are of under 15 minutes duration?

To answer the basic question we cannot just focus on traffic congestion. Traffic congestion is, in reality, the effect and not the cause of our transport problems: it means that our roads are bursting at the seams. We need to consider the issue in depth and in a holistic manner.

The National Transport Master Plan for the Maltese Islands does just that. When considering the proposals listed in the Master Plan, it is not a question of pick and choose: it is an integrated plan. Some of the proposals are easy to implement, others are tough as they strike at the real cause of our transport problems: our behaviour. Little effort is being expended in this direction.

The operational objectives for road transport in the Master Plan place great emphasis on the need to reduce the role of the car in the busy congested urban areas as well as on the provision of alternatives to private vehicular demand in these areas.

Unfortunately, instead of implementing these basic operational objectives Transport Malta is focusing on increasing the capacity of the road network in order to address traffic congestion. As a result, it is addressing the effects and ignoring the cause of the miserable state of our road network.

Government’s policy of massive investment in the road network, will, in the long term, be counter-productive as it will only serve to increase the number of vehicles on our roads and, consequently, cause more congestion.

Just throwing money at problems in the form of substantial subsidies of public transport is not as effective as we would like. The positive impacts of these and other subsidies are being cancelled out through the massive road network investment: a declaration that the private car is the preferred mode of transport of the policy maker.

As a result, the clear message of Malta’s transport policy is that public transport is only tolerated as life is only made easy for the users of private vehicles. It should, in fact, be the other way around.

The National Transport Master Plan clearly emphasises that the lack of importance given to long-term planning means that a long-term integrated plan based on solid analysis with clear objectives and targets is lacking. This has resulted in the lack of strategic direction and the inherent inability to address difficult issues such as private vehicle restraint.

It is about time that the government starts implementing its own Master Plan which so far it has consistently ignored.

published in The Independent on Sunday : 24 June 2018