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Swieqi: in search of an identity | Noel Muscat

Close proximity to Paceville has made Swieqi a hotbed of vandalism and petty crime. But its mayor, Noel Muscat, argues that the locality’s problems run much deeper than mere delinquency.

raphael_vassallo
Raphael Vassallo
23 July 2014, 8:00am
Noel Muscat: 'We're living in a tense situation here'. Photo: Ray Attard
Noel Muscat: 'We're living in a tense situation here'. Photo: Ray Attard
No peace in Swieqi • Mayor Noel Muscat • Video by Ray Attard
Judging by recent news reports of violence and crime in Swieqi, I wasn’t sure whether I’d need a Humvee and bottle-proof jacket to drive into the heart of that residential enclave in search of its mayor, Noel Muscat, for this interview.

As it happens, personal body-armour proved unnecessary. At around 4pm the place is practically deserted… so much so that I even managed to find a parking place within half a mile of Muscat’s office (a virtual impossibility, had our appointment been after 8pm).

But a Humvee might have helped negotiate the otherwise quasi-lunar surface of many of its severely dilapidated roads. Driving into Swieqi off the Regional Road, it is difficult not to be struck by a peculiar paradox. This is one of Malta’s fastest growing towns, and has arguably attracted a more affluent population than almost anywhere else. This much alone accounts for part of the area’s recent spike in burglary and theft. Yet the state of the roads compares with the worst Malta has to offer. And as any resident will tell you, the traffic infrastructure in general leaves much to be desired, too.

Access to the area is limited to two, maybe three roads… one of which (under the tunnel from St George’s Bay) is conspicuously more used than the others. All lead into narrow streets, and these – owing to overpopulation and proximity to Paceville – tend to get severely congested most evenings of the week. To add to the sense of claustrophobia, the neighbourhood is almost choked with development, and the impression you get driving through is that there is not a single public open space of any kind, anywhere.

These are the sort of issues you’d associate with depressed areas and social dumpsites… not with one of Malta’s most sought-after residential addresses.

For all this, Swieqi has been in the news over other, more pressing concerns. Opening the first Swieqi police station this week, Home Affairs Minister Manuel Mallia confirmed that the town’s criminality rate is twice the national average, while the incidence of burglaries in residences is five times higher. The main crimes were theft from cars, homes and (to a much lesser extent) shops, as well as damage to private property.

“The problems begin after midnight and go until roughly 5am,” Noel Muscat tells me in the offices of Noel Muscat & Co accountancy firm. Muscat is known outside Swieqi circles largely as a radio presenter on 101 and a candidate for the PN at the last general elections. Those involved in the sports sector may also remember him from his career in competitive football with Melita FC, St Patricks Zabbar and Athleta Pembroke.

For the past two years, however, he has found himself devoting more of his time to addressing the so-called “neighbourhood problem”. And as he takes pains to point out, it is a far more complex problem than random acts of delinquency or crime might suggest.

“Newspapers and the media tend to talk about Swieqi, Sliema and St Julian’s as if they were one and the same place. But the reality is very different. Sliema has a commercial centre. St Julian’s has an entertainment district. Swieqi, however, is almost exclusively residential. There are no entertainment venues of any kind, and hardly any shops…”

All the same, Swieqi is exposed to the ‘other side’ of Paceville. Not only is it viewed as an extended parking zone for the thousands who descend on Paceville on weekends and throughout the summer; but a large concentration of rental properties and residences for tourists also means that the place is simply invaded each year by fun-seeking teenagers on holiday… with results that occasionally get reported in the media.

One recent example involved a street of parked cars vandalised in the same way: broken side mirrors and key-scratches along one flank. Last April there was a spate of incidents in which cars had all tyres slashed. In a scene reminiscent of the Wild West, one resident reportedly offered a reward of 500 euros to whoever could apprehend the culprits.

Muscat explains that the bulk of the complaints he receives as mayor concern noise and vandalism. “Vandalism ranges from people walking on cars – which is terrible, you know – to the slashing of tyres, breaking of mirrors… to people doing all sorts of things, all sorts of acts, in the property of other people… you get reports of everything: condoms deposited into the letterbox…”

Pre-empting my question that… well, couldn’t this also be viewed as a mostly harmless childish prank?... Muscat breaks off to give an indication of the sheer extent of the phenomenon. “When you hear of one, two cases, you say, oh well… but then when you start doing house visits, talking to various people and listening to all these stories… they do seem to add up, and you say: this is really bad…”

The situation has evidently exasperated the residents, and a hint of this exasperation comes through even in Muscat’s otherwise quiet and composed manner. He reminds me that this sort of nuisance is also an invasion of an otherwise sacrosanct right to live in safety and tranquillity in your own home. 

“Swieqi is home to us, and quite an expensive area too. Now, you live in your home, your ‘home sweet home’… you return home from work to relax, and to at least spend the rest of the day in peace and quiet. When you’re living in this area, you’re living in a tense situation. Your ears are open for the noise that’s going on outside, just in case anybody does, you know, anything wrong to your property, to your vehicle. I don’t think that’s a very happy situation…. when you’re living in quite an expensive area. In fact when you see comments on Facebook, you see people say ‘I don’t know why I’m paying so much rent to live in this area of disturbance.’…”

And even though some of this offensive behaviour has ‘language school student’ written all over it, Muscat is reluctant to point fingers directly at this particular category of potential trouble-maker. Last April’s tyre-slashing episode was a case in point: two suspects were eventually arrested and both were Maltese. But Muscat adds that it would be a mistake to focus only on one type of offender for another reason: this aspect represents only one side of a multi-faceted problem.

“The issue is not just with language students, and it’s not just with foreigners either. We would be barking up the wrong tree if we just blamed it on the students. There are Maltese causing problems as well.”

Nor is it a question of age, as the type of crimes committed seems to suggest. “When I’ll be going [to] my radio programme in the morning and I’ll be driving out at half six, you see adults returning in quite a state. So it’s not a matter of just the young ones, you know. It’s mixed, and it’s complex. This problem has been going on for many, many years.”

Noel Muscat does however concede that the language school issue has contributed, even if unwittingly, to the situation. “The vast majority of language schools and residences are concentrated in this area. Sometimes it’s not even a case of vandalism or crime.

"If you have large numbers of youngsters walking through the streets of a quiet neighbourhood at 5am, 6am… they will cause a disturbance whether they want to or not. We hear them every night. Even if they’re just talking, five or six people walking past your house make enough noise to keep you awake. And this happens seven days a week… That’s why for years now we have been asking for a local police station…”

Part of the Swieqi civic centre was earmarked as a station several years ago, but these plans were continually shelved owing to a general shortage of police manpower. Matters reached a head in recent months, and the station was finally opened last April… after the latest wave of criminal activity was duly reported in the media.

“For us this was a very big step,” Muscat points out. “We had long argued that even the presence of uniformed police would make a difference.”

Having said this, he admits that police presence in the area could be beefed up from the present situation of one, maybe two police officers assigned to Swieqi.

“As things stand, when police patrol the streets they have to close the station. But the local council is not asking for more police patrols. There are other ways to deal with the problem. As you know, there is only one entrance into Swieqi [for pedestrians] – under the Regional Road tunnel. That is where most, if not all the people coming back home or to their cars from Paceville will pass. What we are suggesting is to have a policeman on duty at that point, monitoring groups of people as they walk through, to see if anyone is not in a stable condition…”

Such people could be warned by a uniformed policeman that they are entering a residential area, which might prove sufficient deterrent for all but the most criminally-inclined of trouble-makers. If there is need, the policeman can inform the station that potential troublemakers are coming through.

Even so, with the population set to increase, Muscat claims that eventually, more police will have to be assigned to the area.

Meanwhile, residents continue to turn to the local council expecting action over their complaints. Surely, dealing with such issues is in fact part of the broader responsibilities of civic administration. Is there anything the local council can do about the situation on its own?

 “Unfortunately the local council has very limited powers. All we can do is act as a pressure group, in reality. All we can do is communicate with the authorities to vent people’s concerns. But that’s all we can do. I have no authority to allocate police…”

Elsewhere, talk of a ‘neighbourhood watch’ seems to have fizzled out, though Muscat adds that part of this idea has now become incorporated into the local council’s Facebook page, which has become almost an ‘early warning system’ for the locality.

“Quite a lot of residents are on that page, and inform other residents of what happened on one particular night, and so on and so forth. But complaints are continuous and regular. And things are going to get worse, by the way. Because the population is increasing. Whereas before we knew, for instance, where students were allocated – because there were certain areas which housed students – now, there are whole blocks of flats which are being let out to students. So whereas before… we knew where it was concentrated, which was near the garden view complex, now it’s spreading all over the locality. So we know that the control of it is going to become even more difficult.”

Moving aside from crime and delinquency, Muscat admits he faces longer-term challenges as mayor of a fast-changing locality. “Swieqi is currently going through its second phase of construction. The first phase was in the 1960s and 1970s, when the first buildings went up. Now, terraced houses are constantly making way for large blocks of apartments.

"The present population is over 10,000. The local council has had to increase from seven to nine councillors to reflect this growth. We are talking about a substantial increase in a very short time…”

Echoing frustrations common to many local councils, Muscat adds that permits for development were being dished out without due consideration for the infrastructural challenges such projects invariably cause. “To give one example, in one dead-end street – and there are many dead-end streets in Swieqi – some three or four blocks went up recently. Yet the street is still a dead end. Each block contains 16, 17 apartments, and MEPA’s policies are for all new residences to provide parking for one car per apartment. Can you imagine how many households only have one car today?”

In an ideal scenario, the plans for this particular area should have been to open up the dead end to improve the locality’s traffic flow, and to insist on more parking facilities to cope with the increase in traffic volume. Instead, all the previous congestion problems were left not only unsolved, but dramatically exacerbated.

Another administrative problem concerns the council’s dependence on central government for even the most basic service provision. In some cases – for example, street lighting – this may have a direct bearing on crime rates in the area.

“There is one area where the lighting is particularly poor. It is also one of the areas where tyres were slashed. We need to change the bulbs of the street lamps. Yet when you go to the relevant government departments, you get sent to MEPA, you get told this or that, and in the end it takes three months to get a simple light bulb changed. Or an electricity pole in the middle of the pavement. Do you know how long it took us to get an electricity pole removed? A whole year…”

On top of all this, however, Noel Muscat fears that the town he has called home for the past 17 years is still struggling to carve out an identity of its own. It is this lack of identity, he argues, which also impacts the apparent lack of civic pride: if not among residents, at least among people passing through.

“Other towns have their own identities, their own character. Mgarr has its agricultural produce, its strawberry festival; Zebbug is famous for its Good Friday procession; every village has its festa. Swieqi? We don’t even have a town square…”

The local council’s strategy to counter this has been to invest heavily in sport: not just football (in which Swieqi FC has just been promoted to a higher division) but also rugby and handball. Yet Swieqi has no sports facilities of its own outside one or two small gyms.

“And there isn’t any space, either. To give you an idea of how crowded we have become: when the Forum Hotel was demolished, there were 17 trees to be replanted in the area. Would you believe that we couldn’t find room for a single one? In the end we had to give them all to Pembroke…”