Paying for an ego trip

Why the government lets him stay in a position in which he acts as if his need for ego trips surpasses his responsibility in the democratic process can hardly be understood

Film Commissioner Johann Grech (left) with Tourism Minister Clayton Bartolo (Photo: Facebook)
Film Commissioner Johann Grech (left) with Tourism Minister Clayton Bartolo (Photo: Facebook)

Clayton Bartolo, minister responsible for the Malta Film Commission made a sorry exhibition of himself trying to justify the Commission paying British actor David Walliams €120,000 for hosting the Malta Film Awards ceremony. His sorry excuse, in trying to defend the indefensible, was that the expense was part of an international marketing move.

I think that, in fact, the Maltese exchequer has ended up paying for a costly ego trip of the Film Commissioner – Johann Grech. The minister insisted that these ‘marketing efforts’, including having Walliams as host, had already brought good results for the industry. This claim cannot be fact-checked, of course.

The ‘Malta Film Awards’ budget in 2022 was €400,000 but the Malta Film Week alone had cost some €1.3 million. If the minister does not understand that this is a case of irresponsible spending of public money that was not even budgeted by parliament, then he should not be a minister.

The Opposition has rightly said that this extraordinary expense shows that the government has the wrong priorities, but the minister insists that the Opposition wants Malta to lose out from film productions! Clayton Bartolo does not seem to understand that shaking off justified criticism in this way is puerile.

Considering that Maltese film producers were given a subsidy of just €600,000 by the government, Walliams’ pay package seems extraordinarily huge.

The Prime Minister’s weak reaction to this mess was to move the funding of Maltese films away from Johann Grech and Clayton Bartolo to the ministry responsible for culture. On its own, it is a weak reaction. Johann Grech should have been removed from the responsibility that has led to such abusive over-spending for which he is accountable.

Clayton Bartolo put up another weak excuse to try to justify his ministry’s silly efforts to keep the amount of this expense under wraps referring to ‘confidentiality clauses’ that he seems to think are more important than the people’s right to know how its money is spent.

The control over spending of public money is a very important part of the democratic process. A government that expects to hide unreasonable overspending of public funds does not respect the notion that the people – not the administration – are sovereign. It implies that one of the basic tenets of democracy is missing. That is why there are legal remedies to force government to publish what it tries to hide.

The right to information held by public authorities is the reason behind the Freedom of Information Act that promotes added transparency and accountability in government. It also allows for justification when an official document is not to be disclosed. The fact that the media had to resort to this legal right in this case is a sad reflection of the mentality of Clayton Bartolo. His basic lack of respect to the rights of the people, who entrusted him with the power that he has as a minister, is evident. Apparently, Clayton Bartolo does not understand the basic tenet that power comes with responsibility.

As for Johann Grech, the country has long lost its faith in the possibility that Grech can act independently of the ego trips that he finds necessary to have job satisfaction.

Why the government lets him stay in a position in which he acts as if his need for ego trips surpasses his responsibility in the democratic process can hardly be understood.

A planning mess … in the UK

The Daily Telegraph a few days ago reported that Michael Gove, the UK Levelling Up Housing Secretary, has been accused of pitting neighbour against neighbour after announcing a planning reform that will allow homeowners to build bigger extensions without planning permission.

Surveyors and property lawyers in the UK have said proposed planning policy changes drawn up by the Secretary could spark “civil war” in middle-class suburbia and a sharp increase in disputes between neighbours.

The proposals, published recently, will allow homeowners to build wider and taller extensions – including L-shaped wraparounds, loft conversions and kitchen extensions – without planning permission.

Critics of this move insist that this means property developers will be able to buy suburban houses and convert them to micro hotels or to B&Bs.

The proposal also lays out plans to scrap rules that say a home plus any extension cannot make up more than 50% of the land surrounding it, as well as allowing homeowners to convert as much loft space as they like without permission.

They are part of a wider fight - in a bid to solve Britain’s housing crisis - against NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) councils blocking house building . There are areas in Britain where only 59% of planning applications are approved.

The ‘major shake-up to planning rules’ came together with the announcement of plans to prioritise developments for house building in land that is abandoned or underutilised due to pollution from industrial use.

The UK Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, said the move would help the government meet its target of delivering one million homes before the election.

However, the plans have sparked fear of a surge in feuds between neighbours quibbling over kitchen extensions encroaching on garden fences and towering loft conversions casting shadows over back gardens.

Current planning policies in the UK have led to increases in prices of property while the country is also facing a housing shortage.

The situation in Malta is almost the opposite, with people complaining of too much house building, while developers believe that the market is still strong and investment in property still makes a lot of sense.

If building in Malta is restrained – as some NGOs want – prices will go up even more than they have already done, as the market will no longer be as free. One must not forget that the areas that are outside development zones (ODZ) are bigger than the development zones and that is why pressure to build in ODZ areas is always increasing. The Planning Authority should resist this pressure, but NGOs cannot complain, at the same time, of too much building in development zones.

This is why, succinctly, the situation in Malta is the opposite of that in the UK. More so as the current population increase in Malta was unforeseen when the limits to development zones were finalised.

In the UK, so-called ‘NIMBY’ Councils have slowed development with the resulting increase in property prices and other problems.

The balance between opposing viewpoints on these planning issues is very hard to find.