Fuel pumps, wider roads, underwater tunnels and artificial islands: dissecting the greenwash assault

MaltaToday has a go at the tiresome excuses of Labour ministers over their desultory record on the environment, and how government and big business offer ‘hope’ for future solutions while pressing on with questionable projects

We are being offered glimpses of a bright new future that will have electric cars zipping on wider motorways; trading schemes for developers to keep our urban conservation areas free of additional storeys; or idyllic artificial islands as business-as-usual… almost inescapable prospects of the immediate future.

And here are six examples symptomatic of an attitude which sees government and big business claim to offer hope in the future while they carry on with their more immediate plans.

1. The petrol station saga

A year ago Environment Minister José Herrera called for a revision of the petrol station policy approved by government in 2014, which had paved the way for the approval of four mega petrol stations on land outside development zones.

More than a year has passed but the policy draft has yet to be issued for another round of public consultation. Yet on 11 April, the Planning Authority board is being asked to approve yet another petrol station on 1,680sq.m of good quality agricultural land in Burmarrad. Meanwhile another application envisaging a fuel station on the scenic road to Rabat is at a very advanced stage. How many more fuel stations will be approved before the policy is changed?

2. Approving projects before the infrastructure

The Environment and Planning Review Tribunal – the PA’s appeals board – has confirmed that the 38-storey tower in Pembroke by the DB group has been approved in the absence of a clear commitment to develop a tunnel infrastructure to cater for an additional 7,000 car trips. In its decision the tribunal declared that final operational permits – required after the development is completed – can only be issued when Transport Malta is satisfied that the infrastructure can take the extra traffic. Yet, in the absence of a masterplan for the whole area which emphasises public transport options, the whole process smacks of socialising infrastructural costs for private gain.

3. Putting the electric carrot at the end of the Gozo tunnel

In a bid to counter environmental concerns on the Gozo tunnel, the PM has repeatedly declared that Malta’s shift to electric cars should start in Gozo.

Joseph Muscat has also recently declared that the change-over to electric cars will be as drastic as the time when the country changed to decimals and later to euros. While this a positive step, the transition to electric cars is a long-term solution: while after the cut-off date new cars would have to be electric, those who already have petrol cars would be able to keep them. Moreover it is still unclear how an earlier cut-off date for non-electric cars in Gozo will keep petrol operated cars from crossing over from Malta.

In the same breath, Muscat has insisted that on the proposed tunnel the government was willing to continue to listen and consult “but it was now at the stage of not if, but how”. The problem is not that Muscat is pledging a cut-off date for fuel engines, but that Muscat is linking the transition to electric cars to the debate on the Gozo tunnel, which has wider impacts on the environment, including that on sensitive ecological areas in the north of Malta.

Muscat’s declaration suggests that the government is unwilling to heed calls for a Strategic Environment Assessment, which would assess the environmental and social impacts of different solutions to the Gozo connectivity problem, a pre-condition for any informed debate before a final decision is taken.

4. The land reclamation panacea

At the same time, while the PA continues on a weekly basis to approve mega-projects three or four of which produce as much waste as the entire Gozo tunnel, in the absence of any clear plan the government keeps proposing land reclamation as a solution to the very real construction waste problem.

So far, all we know about land reclamation is that the ERA is conducting studies with the aim of identifying in which areas this can take place. Apart from studies conducted in the past, which indicate that real estate is indispensible to render land reclamation feasible, we are still uninformed on how feasible this option is. Neither do we have a clue whether reclaimed land would serve a public purpose or would simply act as justification for more coastal hotel and residential development.

Yet the prevailing logic seems to be that the scale of excavations required by the Gozo tunnel will make it inevitable. Once again not a question of if, but a question of how.
So are we expecting to approve the Gozo tunnel before assessing the merits and feasibility of land reclamation, only to be told at a later stage that this is inevitable because we have already approved the tunnel?

5. A metro to justify land reclamation?

Muscat himself has craftily introduced a new angle to the tunnel debate by hinting that land reclamation will also be the inevitable consequence of a mass transit system.

“Some may argue that Malta needs an underground metro system to solve the traffic problem – the excavation of which would lead to the creation of huge amounts of construction debris. In the same breath, however, they might say that they are against land reclamation,” Muscat recently said when addressing the Malta Developers Association.

The risk of this reasoning is that it serves as an excuse to do nothing to reduce the amount of construction waste in the present by limiting development and encouraging the recycling of this waste, simply because the Gozo tunnel and even more so, a metro, will inevitably tip the scales of the balance. Yet how can we make such a drastic decision in the absence of an informed debate on both land reclamation and mass transit options? For while a trade-off between a metro and land reclamation for a public purpose may be acceptable, the same cannot be said if the waste created by a metro is used as an excuse to build up the coastline for private gain.

Another problem with this reasoning is that so far no studies have been published on which mass transit system is best suited for Malta. Alternatives like monorails and bus lanes, which come with problems of their own, do not require massive excavation works. This is why forward planning must be based on studies assessing the impacts of different solutions, which would enlighten debate before the inevitable trade offs are made.

Moreover, developing a mass transit system which may well turn out to be a hybrid of underground, maritime and surface connections, will take place over a considerable timeframe during which the country can learn to manage its waste flows in a more manageable way, possibly by approving less mega projects.

A metro is no magical solution for our transport problems. Any mass transit system represents a drastic change in mentality, which needs to be addressed in the present rather than at some future date. Therefore having more bus lanes and pedestrian connections on the surface must precede and complement the growth of mass transit systems. Yet, over the past years the government has done the opposite: widen more roads not to create more bus and cycling lanes but to make life easier for drivers.

6. A metro ties in with Muscat’s economic model

In the meantime Muscat conveniently refers to unpublished studies showing that a metro will only be feasible if the population continues to increase, making this public good dependent on an economic model based on more construction to accommodate more people.
Muscat is correct in saying that a mass transit system is rendered more feasible by having critical mass of users. Yet that does not exclude the state forking out money to subsidise routes which are not commercially viable, as currently happens with the bus service. In fact the Labour government has rightly increased subsidies for buses and reversed the cuts which stunned the Arriva service under the Gonzi administration.

Ironically the same Muscat who is evasive on the scale of public financing for the Gozo tunnel, warns that in the absence of more population growth taxes will have to increase, to finance the metro. It remains unclear whether Muscat is really interested in commencing the mass transport revolution, or whether he is simply playing on people’s fears to further postpone decisions. This suggests that the metro debate will linger on for some time, being resurrected from time to time to justify other dubious policy choices.

MDA boss Sandro Chetcuti
MDA boss Sandro Chetcuti

7. The Sandro Chetcuti trading scheme

Recently MDA president Sandro Chetcuti proposed a trading scheme which would see developers purchasing the gross floor area of properties inside village cores only to refrain from developing it, while benefitting from reduced costs and planning gains elsewhere.

The Prime Minister replied that although he was not averse to the idea, this would have to be studied and carefully thought out, noting that value of land in different parts of the island varied greatly. Sure enough we have reached a point where everyone realises that our towns and villages are being over-developed. But once again we risk having a long chimerical debate during which the PA will continue churning permits based on existing policies.

This will be another example of allowing developers to make hay while the sun shines as the country is absorbed in yet another discussion which would see developers benefit either way it goes.

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