INTERVIEW | Sunday, 07 October 2007

Valletta at heart and Sliema in mind

Valletta mayor Paul Borg Olivier might not be the PN’s newest face; but when it comes to sensitive issues like over-development or rent reform, he does provide a different perspective

Interview by James Debono

In his fourth attempt to get elected in parliament, Valletta mayor Paul Borg Olivier will be taking a chance in the tenth district consisting of Sliema, Gzira and St Julian’s while trying once again to get elected from the first district consisting of Valletta, Floriana and Hamrun.
He claims that it was only natural for him. considering that localities in both districts like Sliema and Valletta face similar problems, such as striking the right balance between conservation and development.
But Borg Olivier’s candidature sheds light on the PN’s strategy for this troublesome tenth district.
By fielding Borg Olivier in an already congested district, contested by heavyweights like Michael Frendo, Francis Zammit Dimech, George Pullicino, Robert Arrigo and lately John Dalli, the party is indicating it wants to offer the widest variety of candidates to its voters.
Certainly the Valletta mayor enjoys the significant backing of the party machinery. He was recently earmarked as part of the PN’s “new team” from which, according to PN secretary-general Joe Saliba, Lawrence Gonzi would choose his future Cabinet.
“The fact that I was chosen to be part of the party’s new team is very encouraging and fills me with enthusiasm. I am satisfied because my participation in the party is being appreciated internally. It also shows that the party appreciates my work as mayor of Valletta.”
He does not hide his ministerial ambitions but he would not step in the Prime Minister’s shoes by showing any preference for any particular post.
“The idea of a cabinet post appeals to everyone participating in politics,” he says, adding that he aims to provide disillusioned PN voters in the tenth district a “viable option.” Borg Olivier believes that the perceived malaise affecting this district can be solved “on a one-to-one level with voters.”
But what does the Valletta mayor have to offer to Sliema and other tenth district voters?
“Residents in both districts are facing problems in their daily lives. That is why I firmly believe that the challenge facing politicians nowadays is to take politics to the people’s doorsteps.”
According to Borg Olivier, people in both districts are concerned with problems related to traffic and what he calls “the conservation of everyday life.”
“One does not have to wake up on Sunday to the sound of dredging works. The government has already introduced construction regulations. We now have to explain these proposals directly to the people.”
Borg Olivier promises to use his experience as Valletta mayor to the benefit of his new voters in the tenth district.
He recalls that the Valletta council was the first to make developers pay “inconvenience money” during the construction of the Embassy complex.
“This is a way to give tangible benefits to the population at large.”
According to Borg Olivier, if people get something back they will be less suspicious of development.
“Having a crane next door is not in itself a bad thing. For an elderly woman living next to an abandoned building it is re-assuring to see new neighbours coming to live next to her.”
Borg Olivier disagrees with Nationalist MP Robert Arrigo, who proposed a moratorium on permits in Sliema.
“A moratorium will not solve these problems. It will only sweep them under the carpet. Development has to take place in a sustainable way.”
Yet over the past years the Tigne area which faces Valletta has seen an onslaught of development. Paul Borg Olivier gives a mixed verdict to this development.
“I must admit that the scale of development is too massive (goff)… Visually I am not comforted by this development.”
He notes that back in 1996 the Valletta Council had warned that Valletta, a World Heritage Site, needed a buffer zone.
“Just imagine if one were to build that block just 200 metres from the Taj Mahal or the Giza Pyramids. While one can argue that the sea in itself is a buffer zone, some planners argue that this is not sufficient.”
Yet Borg Olivier insists that the project also has a positive socio-economic impact. “What is positive in Tigne and the Gzira sea front are becoming a socio-economic hub again.”
The mayor sees development in Tigne across Marsamxett, and development in Cottonera across the Grand Harbour, as important components of the revival of the port and Valletta itself. “Valletta is once again becoming the centre of this hub.”
Paul Borg Olivier insists that the Grand Harbour Plan recently presented by the government is not simply a pre-electoral gimmick. “The vision for the Grand Harbour Project has a clear target for completion: 2015. This coincides with the government’s goal of turning Malta in to a centre of excellence by 2015.”
Rebutting criticism that the government was simply taking its cue from the Labour Opposition, which is consulting stakeholders for its own Grand Harbour plan, Borg Olivier notes that the decision to locate Smart City in Kalkara was taken two years before the election, as were decisions taken on Dock Number 1 and the Cottonera water front.
He also notes that 2015 coincides with the 450th anniversary of the Great Siege – a moment which forged Maltese identity.
“Sliema represents a continuation of the new city set up by the Knights. It’s the same development in a northern direction, which took place 200 years later.”
Although Bog Olivier is being presented to the electorate as a new face, the next election will be the fourth he will contest.
His first try in 1996 netted 392 votes. He increased his tally to 690 in 1998 only to see it decrease again to 533 in 2003.
He was closest to being elected in 1998, when he lost a casual election for a mere 100 votes. At that time the district was contested by heavyweights like the then deputy leader Guido De Marco and party general secretary Austin Gatt.
“The first election is a launch. The second election was just two years later. As mayor of the capital city I have now gained more experience. Although I was not elected to parliament I have served as mayor for nine consecutive years. People make choices. They wanted me to remain as mayor while they elected others to parliament”
Austin Gatt is now the PN’s heavyweight on the 1st district. Does Paul Borg Olivier consider him a rival?
“My only rivals are those from the other side.”
He also showers the Investments Minister with praise. “Austin Gatt has the drive to translate policies into concrete action. As minister for local councils he introduced the local enforcement system. Now we are working together on capital projects like the Park and Ride and the Grand Harbour Plan.”
The post-war period brought with it a notable decline in Valletta. It is only now that Valletta appears to be finally experiencing a nightlife comeback.
But Borg Olivier is realistic in his expectations on reviving Valletta.
“Valletta can never be compared to London and New York. Malta is far smaller. New York is a bustling place at all times, but if one goes to Wall Street at night it is practically dead. Time Square and Greenwich are the places to be at night. The fact that people congregate in St Julian’s and Sliema is only natural in a country which is very much like one city state.”
What penalised Valletta, according to its mayor, was an unfair negative perception.
“People used to refer to Valletta as a place for vulgar and coarse people (“hamalli”) and hooligans. This was an altogether negative perception which we have managed to change in the past 15 years.”
He attributes this to the synergy between stakeholders and the local council. The “Notte Bianca”, organised for the first time last year, also helped to change this perception.
“The Notte Bianca serves as window dressing for Valletta as a whole. It is one of those things which change people’s perceptions.”
Paul Borg Olivier is optimistic that this year’s event will be even better than last year’s. He promises that this year will see a greater synergy with shops and catering establishments and that the flow of people in to the city will be facilities.
“We improved this product. Last year there was practically no food after 9pm. We also had the Military Tattoo which limited the people’s breathing space. This year activities will be concentrated aound Main Guard, thus encouraging people to walk into Valletta”
One sign of growth is the increasing number of people who want to live in the capital city.
“Valletta was considered a no-go area where nobody wanted to live. This is no longer the case and more and more people want to live in it.”
Yet with new people choosing Valletta as their place of residence, MEPA is inundated with applications for “alterations” and “extensions” to existing Valletta buildings… which environmentalists fear are really euphemisms for luxury penthouses, steadily altering the capital’s elegant skyline and threatening its heritage status.
Borg Olivier is convinced that a balance can be maintained. “Valletta is a dynamic capital. It has to evolve within its own dynamics. The Knight of Saint John themselves did not fossilise Valletta. When the time was right, the changed one-storey buildings to two-storey buildings.”
As regards penthouses, the Valletta mayor insists that every case must be treated on its own merits.
“One cannot say ‘no’ to any development because nobody can be expected to come to live in Valletta according to the same conditions in which people lived 300 years ago. One has to allow some modifications. Let us not forget that the haphazardness of Valletta rooftops, immortalised in paintings of Esprit Barthet and many artists, is part of the city’s characteristics.”
Paul Borg Olivier claims that Valletta’s mortal blow was the mass exodus of Valletta’s upper middle class, who looked for a more comfortable abode in places like Attard and other towns in the 1960s.
This exodus also created a social imbalance in Valletta, as well as an accumulation of social problems.
Valletta has a large number of vacant properties and also a large number of dilapidated properties which fall under the 1939 rent regime. Paul Borg Olivier does not mince his words on the need to reform rent laws: “The rent law are unjust and should be changed.”
He also blames rent laws for the rot which degrades many properties in Valletta.
“I know an elderly widow whose sole investment in life is a house in which another elderly widow lives. The tenant lives in the constant danger of a condemned roof. But she expects the landlady to pay for the repairs. But the landlady’s sole source of income is her pension. This is a blatant and great injustice”
But how can one reach a balance which reassures the two elderly women?
Surely Paul Borg Olivier does not foresee a drastic and sudden reform, saying that at this stage the government can set cut-off dates which give a breathing space for existing tenants.
“One should protect people who have lived in a property for a number of years. But in such cases, one can also shift the onus of responsibility for repairs from the land owner to the tenant… If a family has lived in a particular property for 80 years it is surely not the land owner’s fault that roofs are in a bad state.”
He also points out that back in 1995, the government had already enacted the first series of reforms by liberalising rents contracted after that date. Yet the 1995 law did not revive the property market.
“It was a bold decision by the PN after 55 years of inaction by successive governments. It did not work enough, because of the lack of trust on the part of owners in the state’s ability to protect their property rights.”
Despite all the progress in the past years, the former Theatre Royal still stands as a reminder of the inability of successive Maltese governments to restore a major landmark.
“The theatre has been in ruins for 60 years. It is a pity. At least we have made better use of it by using it as an open-air theatre. Let’s not forget that during the summer 10,000 people bought tickets for cultural activities during the Summer Arts Festival.”
According to Borg Olivier the theatre should not be rebuilt as an opera house. “I think that when rebuild the place should have a hybrid use. First of all the place is too small for big operas. Despite the popularity of operatic concerts I doubt whether its financially feasible to keep it going all year round.”
He notes that opera houses in Europe are passing through a crisis and had to popularise their theatres through musicals and other shows.
What Borg Olivier would not like is to rebuild the opera house as a commercial centre as proposed by the MLP led government before 1998. “It should remain a cultural centre,” he insists.
Paul Borg Olivier does not lack in confidence when it comes to his party’s chances in being re-elected. “The challenge facing the party is how to continue making a success of EU membership and to ensure that common people reap the fruits of membership. Considering that the country has been allocated EUR 855 million in funds, we can achieve this aim. Our challenge is to distribute these funds fairly in a way that everyone is affected. This will be reflected in living standards.”
He also gives a clear example of how the country’s wealth is to be distributed.
“Malta is set to gain Lm 100 million in its GDP from Smart City. It will be investing Lm 50 million in education.”
Yet despite clear signs of economic growth, wealth is not trickling down to everyone’s pockets. How does Borg Olivier expect those who have not seen any improvement in their lives to vote PN?
“Everyone appreciates that our way of life is entirely different from that in 1987. The challenge now is to deliver economic development to the people’s doorsteps. I believe that this is already happening.”
He also claims that unlike the MLP, the PN has a clear direction and vision.
“Our programme has a clear aim; turning Malta in to a centre of excellence by 2015. Our party has a long-term vision which is being implemented through immediate action. This is the difference between the two parties.”
Citing the MLP’s procrastination in addressing the pension problem, Borg Olivier sees a crucial difference between the two parties. Still, the MLP is addressing people’s concerns by promising grants for property buyers and a reduction of the surcharge.
Borg Olivier describes the MLP’s surcharge promise is an electoral gimmick and harks back to Sant’s opposition for EU membership.
“They would have denied Malta EUR 855 million from the EU. When we spend EUR 25 million on roads we are not only improving the infrastructure. This money goes to contractors who employ people. It has a ripple effect.”
But for Borg Olivier, the next election will be fundamentally a choice between two leaders: Sant or Gonzi.
“This will be an election of leaders as was always the case in other elections.”
He praises Lawrence Gonzi for putting the house in order by reducing the deficit without sacrificing employment and even attracting more foreign direct investment. “This makes him a distinctive leader at a time when the country faced external factors like the international hike on oil price. Gonzi will go down in history as the exact opposite of Mintoff . Mintoff failed in keeping the post independence momentum gained between 1964 and 1971. Gonzi will translate Malta’s membership in the EU in a good and positive experience for all.”

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