MaltaToday | 22 June 2008 | Speculators and squatters rule, OK

OPINION | Sunday, 22 June 2008

Speculators and squatters rule, OK

Pamela Hansen

Still reeling from the effect of my last water and electricity bill, we are now told that the next bills will be even steeper.
Now I know that this is a global problem and our government cannot control oil prices, but it does rather stick in the gullet that Enemalta is proposing to build a substation estimated at €82,000 (these things always end up costing more) to better serve the illegal settlements at Armier.
That money would be better spent if given out as rebates to honest, law-abiding citizens. What kind of message is the government giving the country?
People who appropriate prime coastal areas are not only not penalised, but rather given special treatment to make their squat more comfortable.
So if we all decide to pitch a tent on our favourite beach and refuse to budge? Like what happens every summer at another beautiful bay, Gnejna. What next?
This country’s environment seems to be ruled by speculators and squatters.
Thirteen major projects involving the construction of high-rise buildings have either already been processed or are currently in progress at MEPA, the Prime Minister told parliament.
We have already seen the grotesque result at Tignè and apparently that project still has two more pending applications, plus more applications for Fort Cambridge and the Fortina Hotel in that patch.
The Valletta bastions view seems to have been sold out to the private sector. Trying walking along the side streets at the top end of Sliema. Whereas before you could see the bastions in the distance at nearly every corner, now all you see, mostly, are walls, rabbit hutch buildings and armies of water tanks.
More high-rise buildings are planned among them - the Maltacom site at Qawra; the former Empire Stadium and Mira Building at Gzira as well as Townsquare in Sliema; (does the latter include the beautiful villa in Tower Road opposite Norman’s pharmacy?) If it does, Heritage Malta should be protecting that building. I saw a cluster of tourists peering through the gates the other day. That is what tourists like to see, not another Costa del Concrete.
Now we also have the spectre of more devastation of our environment at Mistra.
Back to energy, the Prime Minister said, “A revision in the surcharge is inevitable and we should be in a position to decide on this issue in the coming days.”
But why has it taken so long to do something about alternative energy? Considering its trumpet-blowing on being the first to raise awareness on climate change, what exactly has the government done on other means of providing energy?
“Our alternative energy plan, which will include measures and projects in the wind, solar and photovoltaic sectors should be ready by the end of this year. We are trying to solve some technical problems to be able to start moving as fast as possible to develop an alternative energy sector,” the PM told reporters.
Have all these new high rise buildings, or indeed any new building, got any form of alternative energy system? Has MEPA made that a requirement? I bet it has not.
Frankly, it is only now that the government has got its skates on. Talk about a reactive government. It will be a long time before the consumer will be able to get some respite and even the rebate on energy-saving domestic appliances has dried up.
Developers do not care about how much the consumer will have to pay in utilities charges in new apartments. All they care about is their profit at the point of sale.
EU leaders are currently discussing the current hike in food and oil prices, with the Commission suggesting some mitigating measures to lessen the impact on inflation which is currently at an all-time high in the EU.
France and Italy are trying to lower or remove taxes on fuels, while Germany and the Scandinavian member states are resisting that strategy.
European Commission President Barroso said that member states were permitted to take measures to help badly hit sectors of the economy and low-income families to cope with the current fuel crisis.
But the PM does not seem to be considering that option. “We are now paying much more for oil than we used to six months ago. This will have to be reflected in the price we pay for the energy we use,” the PM told us.
Although Barroso did advise against permanent reduction of VAT or other taxes connected to fuel as that would not solve the problem, and of course he is right, a temporary lowering of the surcharge to reduce hardship should be contemplated by the PM.
Barroso further commented: “We need to adapt to the new scenario where oil prices are likely to remain high. The solution is alternative energy and new consumption habits”, he said.
It would have been interesting if Mr Barroso had expanded on what he regarded as consumer habits. Now if he had been referring to Malta he would no doubt have had “walk or cycle instead of driving everywhere” in mind. Especially since the latest EU statistics show that we spend most of our household budgets on transport. This on our tiny island.
We allocate 16.6 per cent of our monthly budget, as opposed to 11.9 per cent of the average EU households’ expenditure, on transport, mainly on fuel for cars and public transport, according to Eurostat.
Of course it could just mean that we pay a lot more than other EU citizens for the same commodity, except public transport.
And the survey relates to expenditure in 2005 before the utilities price hike.
We do not need an EU official to tell us that we depend more on private transport, but I cannot believe we spend more on public transport services. It seems like a contradiction.
Granted, our public transport leaves a lot to be desired, but it is still much cheaper than probably anywhere in Europe. The problem is that the government still has not bitten the bullet on that sector.
Apart from the fact that public transport needs to improve, we Maltese do tend to use our cars more than we need to. Do we really need to drive to Church on Sundays, or to the shops a little distance away?
That of course will change now because most will not be able to afford to just spend time cruising (in cars) on Sundays and public holidays.
We are all going to have to change our consumer habits, but at least we have not had a minister telling us “to stop being so bloody miserable”, which was UK Labour, Transport Minister Tom Harris’s message, as reported on UK Mail online.
He reportedly told families that despite rising prices, falling incomes, and the escalating credit crunch, “Our citizens have never been so wealthy”.


Raphael Vassallo will return next week.

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