Enough space exists for schools

 

The refusal by the Malta Environment and Planning Auth­ority’s board last week of the proposed extension to St Augustine’s school at Pietà is a decision that makes sense.

The Mepa board was correct in refusing the application on planning grounds even though there are valid educational reasons that justify the need for more space in the school. The proposal is not compatible with the residential area in which the school and the proposed extension are located. Considering an alternative site would be appropriate.

The application considered by Mepa was to add a primary school to the secondary school already existing on site. The extension was to have six floors, four of which above road level. The proposed development was to be constructed in what is now a garden area that serves as the neighbourhood’s lungs.

As stated by the Planning Directorate, the proposal for the extension, if approved, would have been a case of overdevelopment of the site.

The Church school authorities need to delve deeper in order to plan the educational services they provide after taking into consideration all the impacts of their proposals. Ignoring the impacts on the residents is not an option.

A school, irrespective of its catchment area, should be an integral part of the community where it is located. Ideally, it should be possible for its facilities to be utilised by the community after school hours. It, hence, follows that the manner in which schools are constructed and their relation to the community should be such that a mutually beneficial relationship between the school and the other local institutions can be nurtured.

It seems that this aspect has not been given much thought at St Augustine’s. The school seems to be detached from the community where it is sited. As a consequence, the development can also be viewed as a reduction in the quality of life of the community.

The Church school authorities cannot view St Augustine’s school on its own as an isolated case.

The expansion of the Minor Seminary at Tal-Virtù, for example, was carried out in contravention of the provisions of the Local Plan as detailed by the Mepa audit officer after carrying out a thorough investigation.

The Mepa audit officer had then pointed out that no analysis of traffic impacts had been carried out. He also noted that, with a rapidly declining birth rate, the construction of new schools, except as a replacement for existing inadequate buildings, can hardly be justified anywhere.

The issues to consider are various.

The impacts on third parties need to be given their due weight. Residents close to existing schools like St Augustine’s are already impacted by excessive traffic, even if this is for a limited time in the morning and early afternoon. This impact would increase 100 per cent if the proposed extension were approved, making matters considerably worse.

In addition, the use of facilities after hours when schools are insensitively located in residential areas will impact negatively the community in the area.

Increasing the height of existing buildings or constructing buildings higher than the existing residential surroundings will lead to shadowing of the low-lying residential property. Consequently, as a result of reducing the incidence of direct sunlight on existing residential property, one would be precluded from using equipment utilising solar energy to heat water or to generate electricity. This would signify increased electricity bills for the residents.

The proposed extension for St Augustine’s school at Pietà ignored all these issues.

If the Church schools, as a result of an increased demand, desire to expand it is pretty obvious that the resulting influx of students in these schools would signify a corresponding reduction in the population of state schools. Coupled with the reduction in birth rates, this would mean that there will be substantial empty space in some of the existing state primary schools in years to come.

This could indicate that, rather than developing extensions incompatible with existing residential areas or, worse, developing virgin land, a possible solution to the expansion requirements of schools such as St Augustine in Pietà would be to enter into an agreement with the state to ensure better utilisation of the buildings used as state primary/secondary schools where this is possible. If we agree that more than enough land has been developed in Malta, the redevelopment of some of these sites could be an option worth considering as an alternative to the development of virgin sites and/or the overdevelopment of other sites.

There are valid educational reasons which justify the increase in space that schools such as St Augustine’s are requesting. However, the right of Church schools to provide an education, separate and distinct from that provided by the state, does not, in any way, mean that the rights of residents should be ignored.

Fortunately, it is possible to look elsewhere. Better utilisation of sites already committed to educational use could solve the issue reasonably for all concerned: the schools, the students and the residents.

Published in The Times, February 11,  2012

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Beyond the Rhetorical declarations

The fact that a common vocabulary of environmental and related terms has been adopted ac­ross the political divide may lead some to the mistaken conclusion there exists a widespread agreement as to environmental objectives to be attained. However, while a common vocabulary is in existence through the use of the same terms and expressions, we sometimes seem to refer to dictionaries that vary substantially. As a minimum, they may be said to be substantially different editions!

Consider sustainable development. The term is ubiquitous but there is a wide range of and, at times, conflicting views as to what constitutes sustainable development.

When this Parliament met, at its inaugural sitting, the President as head of state and on behalf of the government read what is known as the Speech from the Throne, that is the government’s political objectives and programme it intended to fulfil while in office. It was then stated that: “The government’s plans and actions are to be underpinned by the notion of sustainable development of the economy, of society and of the environment. When making decisions today, serious consideration will be given to the generations of tomorrow.

“Sustainable development has three main dimensions: economic, social and environmental. Our challenge is to ensure continuous economic development, promoted by education, social development, with particular attention to environmental protection. When we evaluate our activities in view of these three interrelated dimensions, we would be placing every person at the heart of the government’s actions.”

The notions of sustainable development the President put forward on behalf of the government were the minimum possible. They are reasonable as a first step as they contain the seminal ideas that should form the building blocks of a strategy for ending business as usual and moving towards a path eventually leading to a sustainable society.

Economic, social and environmental dimensions are rightly defined as being interrelated. I would go further by stating the social and environmental impacts we must continuously address are the result of the manner in which the economy has been permitted to operate.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating. The government’s commitment towards sustainable development is not to be gauged by its rhetoric but through its actions.

The Commission for Sustainable Development set up in terms of the Environment Protection Act has not met for more than four years, since December 2006. Then it had approved the final version of the National Sustainable Development Strategy, which it submitted to Cabinet. A primary function of the commission now is to oversee the implementation of the Sustainable Development Strategy for the Maltese Islands, approved by Cabinet prior to the March 2008 election and having a 10-year lifespan (2007-2016).

This fact on its own speaks volumes as to the government’s unwritten policies. It is in line with the abolition of the Commission for Sustainable Development by the Conservative/Liberal coalition government in the UK as a result of its bonfire of quangos. The UK government too describes itself as being the greenest ever. Actions, however, speak louder than words. Lip service is clearly the name of the game.

Instead of honouring its commitments and ensuring that each one of the 20 priority areas identified in the Sustainable Development Strategy are implemented throughout the lifetime of this Administration, a free-for-all has ensued.

How can a government committed to sustainable development justify an administrative set-up that subjugates responsible environmental management to the whims of those who still consider the building construction industry as a prime economic mover on these islands?

The Dwejra debacle, which will, hopefully, soon enter into its final stages, has confirmed once more that, within the set-up of the Malta Environment and Planning Authority, the Environment Protection Directorate may be consulted, yet, it is set aside when decisions are taken.

What is the purpose of drawing up local plans to regulate development if these are repeatedly ignored as has been shown once more by the Mepa audit officer in his report on the extension of the Church-run Seminary at Tal-Virtù?

Why speak of eco-Gozo yet issue a development permit for a Church-run cemetery, which is in the process of completely ruining a rainwater harvesting infrastructure that has served the agricultural community at Nadur’s Għajn Qasab for about three centuries?

Government actions speak louder than words. As aptly stated by Marco Cremona (The Times, January 18) we are witnessing mixed messages and conflicting policies.

There is no coordination of environment policy across government. This is in part the result of the abandonment of the sustainable development infrastructure. It is clear there is no one who has the ability to enforce environment policy throughout the government.

Late in 2010, Parliament approved a motion moved by the Prime Minister to introduce a Sustainable Development Bill, which has been given a first reading. The political will to act is, however, nowhere in sight.

Published in The Times of Malta on January22, 2011