Monday, September 25, 2017

The crash of bricks

Photo by Jonathan Borg
Last week a roof in Sliema crashed under the weight of bricks that were being transported to an adjacent building under construction. Luckily, a woman inside the room escaped with no injuries.
As is usually the case in such incidents, police are investigating and a magisterial inquiry is under way. Should such procedures suffice? I really don’t think so.
Indeed, some questions come to mind. How many health and safety inspections are carried out by officers from the Occupational Health and Safety Authority on such matters? Is it fair that companies with health and safety requirements face competition by companies that do not invest in protective clothing, safety pro-cedures and the like? Why is it that local councils have no legal authority as re-gards enforcement?
Following the incident in Sliema, a representative of the Chamber of Engineers publicly informed me that they are aware of certain issues regarding new legislation on the safe use of work equipment and that their council was following this up closely. The president of the Local Councils Association, Mario Fava, also publicly informed me that the association was looking into this matter.
One possible way forward in this regard would be to introduce safety wardens. They could work in the same way as traffic wardens, even though I believe that it would be better to have them under direct local council control rather than under the authority of a national government agency. Subsidiarity – the granting of authority at a level closest to citizens – is usually preferable to State centralisation, which is often subject to layers of bureaucracy.
But I would also suggest that one also looks at the bigger picture.  Malta is currently experiencing a construction boom, and it is important to understand its implications.
The most obvious implication relates to the hefty increase in urban, rural and ODZ development permits.
Development optimists would argue that the new scenario may encourage competition among contractors, who may raise standards to their clients’ needs. But it may also be the case that competition can lead to cutthroat practices, often involving foreign workers with inferior work conditions and lax health and safety procedures.
Collaboration between government authorities, local councils, developers’ representatives and experts is imperative to ensure that residents, pedestrians and workers are protected from building abuse and irregularities.
Some may also question whether Malta is too dependent on this economic model, whether the construction industry should be so politically influential and whether we are creating an artificial property bubble. I for one buy such questions, though I would add that the problem is more complex than we usually make it out to be.
One reason for this is that many citizens are directly or indirectly investing in property. Some may be renting property to others, others may be developing, and others may be involved in financial investments which in turn invest in property.
Indeed, many owners of financial assets are finding that it makes more sense to buy property and rent it out, given the poor return on savings and the risk of buying bonds or shares.
For the moment this is proving to be a good investment, as the demand for rented property is high due to the increase in the size of the population, mostly as a result of the large number of foreigners.
However, excessive dependency on foreigner tenants may be risky, especially if numbers slow down. If an increase in property supply exceeds demand, this may encourage speculative behaviour by home buyers and property investors fuelled by unrealistic home price estimates. Given that many developers and contractors are indebted to banks, there could be dire consequences if a bubble occurs and debts cannot be settled.
Thus it would be advisable to ensure proper governance both of construction as it takes place, but also of the property development industry in general. Given that many Maltese people are directly or indirectly involved in this sector, it is ever more important to ensure that the country’s economic model is diversified rather than being over-dependent on one sector. This is yet another area which requires evidence-based policymaking, sustainable governance and proper enforcement.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Update on my role as local councillor

As from today I am representing the Partit Nazzjonalista in Sliema Local Council. This follows after an official request which I sent to PN General Secretary Rosette Thake last week.

I formally joined the PN as a member last May, after resigning from Alternattiva Demokratika. I was elected in Sliema Local Council in 2003, 2006, 2012 and 2013.

I will keep being active for good governance, the environment and social justice.

News report available here.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Discussing the bridge

Times of Malta, 28 August 2017

Would it not be great to walk from Sliema to Valletta on a pedestrian bridge? When I read about this proposal, I gave it an instinctive thumbs-up.
The proposal, by London-based celebrated architect Konrad Xuereb, is reportedly estimated to cost about €8 million and would link Tignè Point to the Valletta gun post. It would add another option for transport between the two localities.
If another proposal, this time by AX Holdings is approved, there would also be added transport options through a tunnel beneath Valletta, which connects Sliema to Cottonera by ferry.
Such multi-modal forms of connection are commonplace in many towns and cities across the world and they can offer practical solutions to combat Malta’s traffic challenges. Interestingly, this newspaper reports (August 23) that, about 60 years ago, a cable-car project was proposed across Marsamxett Harbour, from Sliema Ferries to Hastings Garden, in Valletta, with Manoel Island in between. As we know, this project never took off.
But let’s go back to the future.
Architect Xuereb is arguing that his 300-metre-long bridge proposal will “mean less pollution, fewer people using their cars and [have a] long-term benefit for Valletta, which will feel more connected to places in Sliema”.
Let us assume the government or local councils are interested in developing this public project, what should be the way forward? I would argue for a mix of public consultation and evidence-based policymaking.
In the first instance, funding possibilities would have to be sought for. Given that the government is committed to upgrade Malta’s road network over a seven-year period, would a pedestrian bridge fit within this remit? I think it should, especially when Malta is committed to develop and encourage modal shifts towards alternative forms of transport.
Alternatively, the government can vote specific capital funding or apply for EU funds, the latter also being possible through local council involvement. In the previous legislature, the government spending on capital projects was relaxed, so perhaps this time around the trend can be shifted in a sustainable manner.
Cost-benefit analyses should also be commissioned to verify investment potential of the project, given possible savings elsewhere.
What about the technicalities of the project? Environmental impact studies would have to be carried out on the marine environment, wind impact and other ecological features. This would help stakeholders discuss the issue in an informed manner. This should be so obvious but, very often, we see quite the opposite, for example within the social media, where some people excel in appointing themselves experts of everything. The technical possibilities of development projects require much more than trigger-happy Facebook chats and impulsive decisions by vote-hunters.
This is not to say that public participation is not important. Far from it. Indeed, the participation of the public and various stakeholders can help broaden the debate and create a sense of ownership and belonging to the project, should it proceed.
Local councils directly implicated in this project should have a key role in this regard. The Valletta and Sliema local councils comprise the directly-elected representatives of the respective localities and are directly involved in the day-to-day issues facing residents, businesses, tourists and others.
Let me mention just one example that readily comes to mind. The public beach under Tignè Point is becoming increasingly popular among locals and tourists alike. How will this be impacted by the development of a bridge?
Sliema and Valletta are also characterised by the increased use of bicycles and hats off to that. Given that bicycles comprise clean, light transport, would it be possible to give access to cyclists on the bridge? In the affirmative, what boundaries and limits should be established on usage?
It is by now evident that this development proposal would require a social impact assessment. Mixed sociological and other social-scientific methods should consequently analyse, monitor and manage the intended and unintended social consequences, both positive and negative, of the proposal. It would give considerable importance to dimensions such as culture, perceptions, community, health, well-being and personal and property rights.
The bridge proposal could indeed serve as a case study of truly transparent, democratic and sustainable policymaking. Malta is crying for such processes.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Influenza Vaccines 2017

Click on image for larger version

Tas-Sliema wirt u niesha

Regulations and Application for Gieh Tas-Sliema 2017 are being distributed door to door and can be also collected at the Local Council office in Depiro street, Tas-Sliema.
Tas-Sliema, Wirt u Niesha 2017 will take place on Wednesday 25 October 7pm at the Salesians Theatre

Monday, August 21, 2017

How to keep track of development applications

Journalist James Debono presents an easy guide on how to use the revamped website of the Planning Authority.

Click here for info.

You may also wish to check Claire Bonello's guide on how to write to the Planning Authority for any queries related to development projects.

Click here for info.