Disability commission ignored as restaurants allowed more tables outside

To ease the pressure caused by COVID-19 safety measures on restaurants, government has relaxed conditions for outside dining, but this is ruffling feathers, as JAMES DEBONO found out

The Nola café outdoor extension: residents and businesses were outraged at this latest example of gratuitous al fresco catering taking parking spaces away from the community
The Nola café outdoor extension: residents and businesses were outraged at this latest example of gratuitous al fresco catering taking parking spaces away from the community

No consultations are taking place with the disability commission over the allocation of outside tables and chairs for restaurants to mitigate COVID-19 conditions, Oliver Scicluna said.

The head of the National Commission for Persons with Disability (KNDP) accused the authorities of ignoring the organisation when considering extensions for outside eating beyond original planning permits.

“Following the latest relaxation of COVID-19 restrictions, we have not been consulted with regards to the extension of outside seating areas,” Scicluna told Malta Today.

The permitting system for outside tables was eased after new safety regulations required restaurants to have a 2m gap between tables. This obligation forced restaurants to reduce the numbers of inside tables, which prompted Prime Minister Robert Abela to speak of easing conditions for outside dining.

The decision prompted concern that pavements would be cluttered, making it difficult for people to walk freely.

Scicluna insisted that the role of the commission was to safeguard the rights of persons with a disability.

“So, while we understand the need for economic growth, we think that alternative solutions that respect the basic rights of persons with a disability, including the right have proper access to public infrastructure like pavements, can also be found, with the cooperation and goodwill of all stakeholders involved,” Scicluna said.

The situation for people for mobility problems was already difficult before the latest relaxation of rules.

Whenever a planning application is filed with the PA, the disability commission is consulted during the process and it can object or approve the project if it complies with accessibility standards.

Although the process is straightforward, enforcement remains a perennial problem as responsibility is shared between the Planning Authority, the Lands Authority and the Malta Tourism Authority.

“Usually we end up playing a game of musical chairs. If a single entity were to be empowered to carry out enforcement, this would greatly simplify our work and would bring about a significant improvement when it comes to the enforcement of accessibility issues,” Scicluna said.

For Scicluna the issue of tables and chairs reflects the underlying “lack of consideration towards the disabled”. But it barely scrapes the surface of what the issue is about.

“The Commission which I lead was set up 33 years ago and incorporated at law 20 years ago. Throughout this time, disability has invariably been regarded as a problem or, at best, as an afterthought. Most of the challenges faced by the disabled would not even exist if whoever is planning (whether a building or a policy) were to factor in the implications related to disability from the beginning of the planning stage rather than at the end of the implementation stage,” he said.

Local councils are also lamenting the breakdown of an already broken system that regards pedestrians as an afterthought.

St Julian’s mayor Albert Buttigieg recognised that Malta is in uncharted economic waters and “that we all need to support catering establishments”.

But this should not come at the expense of our already limited public spaces, as in the recent saga of the Nola Café in his locality’s main street. A new outside platform for tables took five parking spaces, including one for disabled persons.

“Public spaces, in particular in St Julian’s and in the surrounding areas, are already limited resources,” he lamented.

Buttigieg fears that these temporary permits may well end up becoming permanent.

“Experience amply shows that certain applications that are approved on temporary and reversible bases, end up being permanent… Many times, residents have to face the arrogance of the few who put economic interests prior to any consideration, whether it is accessibility, health or safety,” he said.

When asked whether a planned allowance for more outside tables would impinge on pedestrian rights, Chamber of SMEs CEO Abigail Mamo said the balance had to be based on mutual respect.

“We should be flexible and understand each other. We do not wish to create inconveniences to pedestrians. But we can be more flexible for a limited timeframe… Just as subsidies for different sectors are temporary, this measure will also serve for a short period. After COVID-19 the situation must revert to what it was before,” she said.

The Chamber had called on restaurants to use common sense when it comes to placing extra tables and chairs outside.

“When they see that they have the space to place more seating, without obstructing the passageway of pedestrians, push-chairs and wheelchairs, then it is fine,” Mamo said.

But Buttigieg, like the KNPD chairman, also laments that the current policy regime predating the COVID-19 crisis is leaving adverse effects on the quality of life of residents.

Buttigieg insists that it should be local councils that ought to have the last say on permits for chairs and tables.

“Sadly, the current administration has a different opinion. Instead, politically appointed persons rather than elected bodies are being entrusted to decide the fate of our locality,” he said.