Monday 14 June 2021

Well, that’s one way to get public feedback

This article first appeared in Malta Today

If the Planning Authority ever wondered how the public feels about the way it functions (or fails to function), it got its answer this week. 

When news spread that a man named Ronnie Gauci, who had taken it upon himself to clean up and decorate a previously litter-strewn spot in the area known as Top of the World in Għarghur, was being forced to demolish it or face a hefty €50k fine, jaws collectively dropped in disbelief. His crime? He had made a makeshift structure complete with plants without the necessary permit.  Social media erupted in outrage.

The Għarghur story went understandably viral because it was a symbol of everything that is wrong with the PA.  Out of all the comments posted about this story, no one summed it up better than Ruben Overend, whose status I am loosely translating from the original Maltese:

Because Ronnie used soil not concrete

Because Ronnie planted flowers not a block of apartments

Because Ronnie is a common man not a contractor 

Because Ronnie put the interest of the community before his own

Because Ronnie put his money into Top of the World in Għargħur not into some secret bank account abroad

The passive Authority showed its mettle

The weak Authority, came out with an iron fist

The blind Authority, bulged its eyes 

The sleeping Authority, woke up 

The ineffective Authority, found a sacrificial lamb

Almost 3000 people have shared his simple yet powerful words, which captured the national sentiment so vividly. It is clear that they struck an immediate chord in a nation which has now reached its threshold of how much it is willing to take from a Planning Authority which not only has no concept of planning, but which has no real authority over those with considerable clout.  It only has authority, it seems, over a harmless man who wanted to take care of a small patch in his community, which anyone who has walked past has always admired. 

Even if one allows for the fact that Ronnie did not have permission to build the structure, and that the plants he planted were invasive species, common sense should have told the PA that there was another more reasonable way to go about this. It is galling beyond belief that out of all the in your face illegalities and all the horrendous ugly buildings going up which have absolutely no aesthetic conformity with their surroundings, it was this little corner in the countryside which shook the PA out of its slumber and apathy. 

We are told that, “The Authority acted upon a complaint it received and its enforcement officers were duty-bound to investigate and request the contravenor (sic) to remove these structures which were being erected on public gargiue (sic) land within a pristine ODZ area of Gharghur.”

I applaud these enforcement officers for their gung ho zealousness, but it’s a pity that their energy flags so quickly and does not extend to the shanty towns and illegal caravans which are in full view in Armier, Mistra, St Thomas Bay and other areas along the coast.  How many complaints have been received about them over the years, without any action being taken? How many thousands of objections have been filed and petitions circulated to stop atrocious mega projects which will forever change the fabric and character of towns and villages, only for residents and citizens to be routinely ignored? And how many times have illegal buildings been retrospectively sanctioned, and the offender given a slap on the wrist and told to “regularise” his position with a paltry fine?

The speed with which the PA acted upon the complaint against the Għarghur structure was so swift, it almost gave us whiplash. But what this Authority did not foresee was that its heavy-handedness over such a relatively innocuous transgression would be called out immediately by the public which has had its fill of the constant two weights and two measures. As if to confirm how completely clueless it is, the sorry excuse for a press release which the PA posted on FB (to point out that no religious niches were going to be destroyed) only served to attract more negative comments.  Do the people who sit on this board have an inkling of how much they have betrayed the whole country with their poor judgement and outrageous decisions over the last few years which only serve to line the pockets of already wealthy developers?

It is easy to act like a tough guy with someone like Ronnie Gauci, but if the PA really wants to impress us it should start throwing its weight around with the Portellis, the Caqnus and the Debonos of this island.  It can start with finally drawing a line to prevent further houses from being knocked down and being turned into rows of ugly, anonymous cubbyholes, with developers cramming as many flats as possible into each plot of land.   

Who does the countryside belong to anyway?

Those who enjoy trekking and exploring what is left of our countryside have noticed that ‘No Entry’ , ‘Private’ and other similar signage has started to appear all over Malta and Gozo.  These signs are appearing along paths and country lanes where they had not existed before even though the Public Domain Act of 2016 clearly states that access to valleys, cliffs and the foreshore cannot be impeded.

Rather than going after someone like Ronnie Gauci, whose little garden was not bothering anybody, this is where the authorities need to take action, to decide this matter once and for all, and to prevent anyone from just putting these signs up without any permission. 

Referring to a 2005 court judgment, the president of the Ramblers Association, Ingram Bondin, recently pointed out that it was illegal to block pathways regularly used by the public even if they were located on private land.  “The authorities need to issue a clear message when it comes to the right of access to regularly used pathways and our expectation is that they treat this matter with the urgency it deserves,” he said. “We can’t go on like this – every week we are seeing problems of this kind in various locations. We wish to stress that our interest is confined to protecting the public’s ability to walk through regularly used pathways. We appeal the public to do this in a responsible manner, by sticking to the pathways and respecting other countryside users.”

We have construction on every corner, and snarling traffic chaos and frustrating diversions on practically every road, so our only respite is heading towards the sparse land we have left, in the countryside and the coastal regions.  Only there can we breathe fresh air, free of pollution, and block out the infernal noise of vehicles and jackhammers. Only there do we cease to feel trapped and suffocated, cornered everywhere we look by diggers and other heavy machinery which take up the street and the pavement, as tower cranes carrying heavy building materials swing perilously over our heads, sometimes even posing a threat to our very homes.

If we are even going to be denied this slight reprieve because of arbitrary signs which are apparently not even legal, then you cannot blame people whose anger is mounting. Why is it that the authorities always seem to sit back and fall into a coma when it concerns the common people? Talk is cheap and what is clear is that when it comes to the environment, electoral promises are often not worth the paper they are written on.  That is why the only way forward is for more people to join forces and make their voices heard – if we don’t, no one else will. 

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