Beaches are meant to be ‘public domain’

While the authorities are right to clamp down on such abuses, it remains a fact that such basic rights as ‘public access to public domain sites’ are routinely being flouted left, right and centre

3 August 2017, 7:30am
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
A recent enforcement operation to clear out illegal sun-beds at Armier – carried out by the Malta Tourism Authority and the Lands Department, in conjunction with the Police – has once again highlighted a discrepancy in our national approach to ‘public space’.

The operation cleared 20 metres of beach of around five truckloads of deckchairs and umbrellas... all the result of two nearby beach concessions that expanded beyond the parameters of their original permit.

In a joint statement, the MTA and Lands Authority said the operators had been “informed on previous occasions that they were not operating in accordance with the permit terms and were advised to comply. They were also warned that action would be taken if such non compliance persisted.”

This joint action was “part of the ongoing drive aimed at ensuring that regulations are respected in full. This should send a clear signal that the authorities are taking this matter seriously and that further abuse will not be tolerated.”

Certainly, the initiative itself is to be welcomed. Similar efforts were also witnessed in Comino, Qawra and other areas where beach concessionaires are known to take more than they were conceded. At the same time, however, it is difficult to square up this enforcement commitment with other cases of appropriation of public land.

The fact that the clean up took place at Armier – within sight of an entire shanty-town of unlicensed ‘boathouses’ – could only underscore the irony. It cannot escape notice that the authorities are extremely selective when it comes to enforcing laws governing the use of public land. They may come down heavily on infringements carried out by random entities here and there... but when large numbers of offenders get together and form a political lobby, the power and willingness to intervene suddenly seems to evaporate.

In the case of the Armier ‘boathouses’, the authorities even arranged to have the village connected to the electricity grid... thus sanctioning the illegal development in all but name.

But in the case of beach concessions, there is another apparent anomaly. Since 2016, the entire Maltese foreshore has been re-classified as ‘public domain’ (as opposed to ‘public land’).

The Public Domain Act imposes a burden on the State to protect public domain sites for future generations, safeguarding them against unsustainable development, commercialisation and environmental destruction. The law also guarantees free public access to all such land.

There are caveats and provisos for private property falling within public domain sites... but as ‘beach concessionaires’, by definition, do not own the land they utilise, any such exemptions clearly cannot apply.

More significantly, the legal change also precludes the government from freely negotiating public domain sites with third parties (as it can with public land), but must ensure the preservation of public rights for future generations.

Again, it is difficult to reconcile this law – passed only last year – with the very different reality experienced at almost any public beach. If all Malta’s foreshore is now public domain, by what right does the government continue to negotiate beach concessions with private businesses?

In the case of the Armier concessions, the answer may be straightforward. The foreshore is defined as the first 15 metres of shoreline from where it meets the sea. A legal concession may easily encroach onto those 15 metres, and find itself facing enforcement action.

But a cursory look at all beach concessions will reveal that few actually observe the 15-metre limit. And everyday experience confirms that many do indeed pose an encumbrance to people trying to access the foreshore: a right supposedly guaranteed them by law.

It is in fact becoming increasingly difficult to find parts of the foreshore where one can enjoy a day at the beach without being forced to pay for the privilege. Those seeking space for their own deckchairs or umbrella often find that the most sought-after beaches (Ghadira being a prime example) are all-but 100% claimed by concessions.

Clearly, there is a level at which the Public Domain Act is not functioning as it should; and the issue goes beyond a matter of mere sun-beds and deckchairs alone.

The recent protests over the closure of Manoel Island were prompted by the same overall concern. Once again, the site was leased to a private consortium (Midi) for redevelopment; but the lease conditions clearly specified that public access to the foreshore had to be guaranteed. Yet a barrier was erected to prevent the public from getting anywhere near the coast.

On that occasion, it took concerted public action – and a lawsuit by the Gzira local council – to eventually re-open Manoel Island to the public. 

All this casts a shadow over the otherwise commendable action being taken to ensure that concessions do not breach their permit conditions. While the authorities are right to clamp down on such abuses, it remains a fact that such basic rights as ‘public access to public domain sites’ are routinely being flouted left, right and centre.

Having a ‘Public Domain Act’ becomes meaningless, if the public’s right of access remains exactly as it was before the law was enacted. It will take more than clearing a few sun-beds to address this problem.