Tuesday 23 July 2024

Hey local councils: What exactly are you responsible for?

This column first appeared on Malta Today (published on Sunday 9th June)

The results of the local council elections won’t be known until mid-week because the MEP votes will be counted first (these results will be announced after 11pm on Sunday once polling stations all over the EU have closed).

But now is a good a time as any to ponder that age-old question: if candidates running for re-election can promise us all sorts of marvellous things that they will be doing for their town/village over the next few years, why haven’t they done them during this last term in the first place? It is a slap in the face to see a sudden spark of interest in the community where there was sheer utter neglect for so long… just because they want our vote. The runaround which residents invariably get is a source of constant frustration and irritation – the councils blame the central government or entities like Transport Malta and vice-versa. Then, when push comes to shove, no one is accountable. Just to cite one example, I would love to know who is responsible for fixing our uneven, precarious pavements and dangerous potholes because whoever it is should be fired.

You would think it should be a relatively basic request to be able to walk around your town without the fear of spraining your ankle, fracturing your leg or falling flat on your face, but daily photos of hazards posted on Facebook indicate otherwise. For all the campaigning and slogans, I would expect local councils to have come to grips with ensuring safety for those on foot (and preventing drivers and cyclists from suffering potential injuries). Yet I will probably be informed that “no, sorry, sinjura, pavements and potholes fall under Infrastructure Malta”. So many responsibilities and funds have been snatched away from the councils, that it begs the question – are we kidding ourselves that we still really need them? To me it seems they have been reduced to organising the occasional local event to give the illusion that they are not completely useless, while certain Mayors go around puffing their chest acting like they own the place.

It also hasn’t escaped anyone’s notice that there has been a flurry of activity with photo ops everywhere you look of projects being inaugurated by the Prime Minister and members of his Cabinet at a furious pace, especially where there is a Labour-led council.

You cannot blame the electorate for becoming so cynical, when politicians have turned cynicism into a fine art.

Here is just a sample from the last few months:

5 June – the inauguration of the new football pitch in Qala, Gozo which cost more than €400,000. “This project will allow the children of Qala to train safely and in a pleasant environment, while the local team Qala Saints now has a worthy place to operate from” said Minister of Gozo and Planning, Clint Camilleri.

5 June – the inauguration of a recreational area in Qormi, “these recreational areas are essential for every community” said Parliamentary Secretary for Local Government Alison Zerafa Civelli

5 June – the inauguration of Mosta square project (even though it was completed months ago). “We also need to have the courage to bring about change while listening to the community,” PM Abela said.

29 May – A 9,000 square metre garden in Birgu was inaugurated after it was regenerated into a recreative space. “We are committed to continue with our work to have localities with more open spaces that are able to be enjoyed by residents, families and children,” said PM Robert Abela.

17 May – A project to upgrade the Kalkara square and shoreline was inaugurated consisting of 16,500 square meters of open space.
“A project that is also a symbol of our commitment to continue creating more open spaces where the community, families, and people can meet..” stated Environment Minister Dalli.

24 April – “An open space for the community” was inaugurated in a housing estate in Santa Lucia, with the project carried out with an investment of a quarter of a million euros

You will note the repetition of certain buzzwords lately like ‘open space’, ‘families’, ‘community’ which have become de rigueur at every press conference. Maybe there’s some kind of handbook which they have to follow. Environment Minister Miriam Dalli has been saying “open spaces” for a while now, probably as often as she says “Project Green”. It is a pity, however, that these nice-sounding phrases jar so gratingly with what is really happening. For every open space, which is inevitably just more concrete and street furniture, we have trees being chopped down or (as happened in Mosta) being viciously poisoned while the culprits are mysteriously never found.
Instead of leaving nature alone to grow in its original environment, we have ignorant philistines in charge who prefer uprooting what is already there only to replace indigenous trees with unsuitable potted plants in an attempt to appease residents (with the obligatory smirking photos then uploaded on Facebook).

If we are serious about open spaces, permits for towering apartment blocks which end up blocking any sunlight and which prevent people from using their own roofs because their privacy has been invaded, should be refused.  Buildings being built back to back with balconies practically touching each other should also be abolished.  Access to nature is already limited but to feel suffocated and snuffed out in one’s own home is even worse. 

As for Project Green, while the plans always sound extremely ambitious…the only green we seem to see around us are sterile playgrounds with a couple of bushes and green paint, or else the famous wall gardens lining certain main roads which end up shrivelled and dying because they are not properly irrigated. Meanwhile, for every project intended to make us think that the government is “doing something” about the environment, more and more of our rapidly disappearing, untouched land is being taken over by relentless over-development.

So for all the hype about “more open spaces for families in our communities”, I’m afraid when we look around our neighbourhoods, that is not what we see. What we see are residents and NGOs having to constantly fight back against the authorities to prevent further encroachment and destruction of what is left of our towns and villages. Meanwhile, we will know soon enough by the turnouts whether local councils have worked or have failed us, or whether they have been rendered completely irrelevant.

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