People first, not profits

Malta’s few remaining public spaces are being taken over for the profit of countless bars and restaurants with encroachments that allow platforms to be erected out on streets

As if it were not bad enough that the rural environment is being lost to speculative development, the ‘war on open spaces’ has now been extended to urban centres and village cores.

Even in built-up areas, Malta’s few remaining public spaces are being taken over for the profit of countless bars and restaurants with encroachments that allow platforms to be erected out on streets.

Until some time ago, this policy was irregularly applied, resulting in general dissatisfaction among the business community – and justifiably so, given that certain restaurants were being unfairly advantaged, by extending their table covers beyond their premises.

After 2013, the incoming Labour administration adopted a political direction to allow almost every single requestor of an encroachment the necessary permit to erect outside platforms.

The result is nothing short of disastrous. Entire pavements have now been taken over by servers, turning what were once public walkways into waiting areas for restaurant staff.

Parking spaces have been lost, simply to benefit the whims of establishment owners to increase their table covers beyond what they have paid for inside the premises they own or rent.

Customers are themselves exposed to the dangers of traffic, being located right on the road where, plausibly, a tragic accident could happen because of over-speeding.

And then there is the deleterious effect that such encroachments have had on our towns’ aesthetic: unsightly platforms designed to conjure up some ‘al fresco’ ambience, which are nothing but encroachments into our public spaces, socializing the costs of the taking-away of public space, while establishment owners reap the profits.

Whereas before, owners were guilty of failing to ensure a clear and adequate access to pedestrians – bearing in mind that in busy areas there are also safety considerations due to the large volume of traffic flowing – they now have been given the divine right to occupy our pavements. 

Although it may not be immediately evident, this, too, is part of what is essentially a political problem. The popularity of the current Labour administration owes itself also to a laissez-faire, free-for-all attitude; and the more popular it grows, the more carefree it has become in turning a blind eye to the problems its policies produce.

The same lesson has not been lost on the Opposition, which now seems reluctant to pursue such causes for fear of appearing ‘anti-business’. On the contrary, the Opposition – with the notable exception of PD’s two MPs, who raise such issues frequently – seems to be trying to outdo Labour in currying favour with business interests at times.

The result is a situation where there is no realistic, viable alternative government-in-waiting willing to challenge the status quo. Instead, it falls to independent politicians and civil society: where the spirit is certainly willing, but the political clout is weak.

A classic example of this unsavoury state of affairs unfolded this week, when both PN and PL unanimously approved a motion to endorse the Gozo-Malta tunnel link proposal.

It is unconscionable that both government and opposition parties have committed themselves to this project, at a time when the scientific reports and environmental impact assessments are still being drawn up. In an age when lack of regard for scientific advice has brought the world to the brink of disaster, it simply beggars belief that Malta’s House of Parliament would make such a bald statement of their total disregard for scientific opinion. Like climate-change sceptics, they doggedly persist in their mantra that ‘the economy should override all other concerns’… even if those concerns involve the health and safety of people, and threaten their way of life.

Above all, however, it confirms – yet again – that when it comes to policies and political approach, there is very little to distinguish between the two parties at all. Both are willing to go with the flow of public opinion, even if the tide may crash the country onto the rocks. Both are eager to persist with an unsustainable, construction-driven economic motor, knowing full well that we are only creating more problems for future generations to solve.

As with the war on public spaces, the Labour and Nationalist Party’s concerns clearly lie where the money is… and not where the long-term interests of their own constituents truly lie.

The result is a country which doggedly attaches more importance to cars than pedestrians when planning roads; that caves into increasingly unsustainable demands from powerful business lobbies; that issues permits before drawing up regional masterplans…  and, regrettably, where it is now becoming dangerous to simply walk along the street: only to find your path blocked by a cafeteria extension – or a poorly-planned construction deviation – and be forced into the path of oncoming traffic.

Here, again, politicians are ignoring expert advice. A doctor working in the Emergency department recently described traffic accidents as an epidemic that carries a significant social cost. He specifically pointed out – among other areas, such as lack of enforcement, that this spike in accidents is attributable to poor pedestrian traffic management.

Are policy-makers listening? Evidently not; and no single voice of opposition seems willing to take up the mantle for ordinary citizens, and amplify a simple mantra: people first, not profits.

More in Editorial