Environment minister interviewed: ‘I will speak out, even if I may rock the boat’

Environmental NGOs and stakeholders have emphasised the need for the minister to surround himself with competent advisers. What have you done to address this matter? Have you retained the same people?

I agree completely with what the NGOs are saying. To be a minister you don’t need to be a specialist in that particular field. You must have a passion – you don’t need to be a specialist but you need to have the right advisers. I carried forward certain advisers I had in my other secretariat who I feel are very competent – one is very technical, the other is a lawyer.

‘Technical’ from an environment point of view?

I have engaged an engineer who was previously the CEO of Water Services Corporation. This makes him very competent. Then I have a lawyer who also has a background in culture. Maybe not strictly an environmental background but I plan to pass certain legislation. For example, we’re discussing whether we should set up something similar to Heritage Malta, but for the environment – Environment Malta. It would encompass the regulator – the Environment and Resources Authority Board (ERA) – and would be there to ascertain that development is done in a sustainable and an environment-friendly manner. It also needs to be restructured a bit in terms of having more enforcement.

You need a semi-autonomous entity which comes up with ideas to enhance the environment and regulate matters which have to do with the environment. Maybe even the parks could eventually fall under this new entity.

I plan to engage a number of persons on a position of trust basis – one of them will definitely be an expert in EU matters, because the environment is top on the EU agenda. We have to implement what the EU is saying and we need to know how to tap into the EU funds. For every project, I’ll create a team of people who are passionate about it and who’ll advise me on it. Apart from this, there are also the NGOs, from whom I’ll be seeking advice.

What do you feel is the single biggest environmental challenge this country has?

Without a doubt – and this won’t be the biggest environmental challenge but the biggest challenge the country is going to face – finding an alternative to waste disposal. At the moment, we depend on landfills but have a timeframe: in two, three years’ time, they’re going to be full. Moreover, the EU doesn’t encourage this system of waste disposal. So we have to decide on alternatives.

What alternatives are you considering?

We’re looking at a number of alternatives which require massive investment. A technologically advanced incinerator which produces energy and a minimum amount of waste. There is also plasma technology which doesn’t affect the environment. We’re also considering incinerators on disused oil rig platforms. This will be the next big thing in Malta, and in the coming month you’ll be hearing a lot about it from this ministry.

I am going to create a very strong enforcement branch

One of biggest issues last year was the grant of ODZ for the ‘American University of Malta’, which turned out to be an institute. Do you believe that was a good decision? The tactic used by this government to boost the economy is to give public land at a fraction of the cost. Is this model sustainable when land is so scarce?

I have to admit with you that, over the years, we weren’t economical in the way we disposed of our land. If you go abroad, you realise that the footprint used for buildings is smaller but the buildings are higher – not high-rise, higher. Take the hospital. There are hundreds of tumoli of land involved in that project. You could have used a quarter of the space and still had the same number of beds.

Future governments have to be more economical in the way empty spaces are utilised. We have to be more protective of the ODZ areas; we have also introduced the Public Domain Act. Around 34 per cent of Malta is built up; the rest is agricultural land and wilderness, and it’s obviously essential to protect it. We have the highest percentage of built-up area of all EU states.

The final proposal of Żonqor is sustainable because part of that footprint is already built up and part of it has no ecological importance.

But couldn’t we have found other alternatives which are non-ODZ?

Yes, we could, but don’t forget that we’re counterbalancing this project by creating a massive park called Inwadar which is a thousand square tumoli – massive and pristine. The government was bound to promote the south as part of its electoral manifesto. You cannot regenerate without making some development. That’s so long as it’s in a sustainable fashion, mind you. You need to counterbalance economic activity with embellishment projects. For instance, the Marsascala Family Park is continuously being beautified. My idea is to gradually phase the Sant Antnin Waste Treatment Plant out if we better utilise the one of Magħtab.

In fact my ministry is called the Ministry for Sustainable Development, the Environment and Climate Change. Environment and development are not opposites. You have to be realistic. You must be intelligent enough to enhance your environment without curtailing economic growth. It doesn’t mean you spoil the environment. We’re lucky we started prioritising the environment in the nick of time, because traditionally we weren’t very keen on the environment, let’s face it. It wasn’t even in our cultural inheritance unfortunately. We still have a lot we can save.

Several towers have been planned for the St Julian’s-Sliema area which would irredeemably alter the skyline. Chamber of Architects president Chris Mintoff has urged developers to beware of “the Montebello Syndrome”, while even Finance Minister Edward Scicluna commented on the “supermarket” of large-scale projects developers were trying to compete with “irrespective of demand”. Are you comfortable with this boom?

This is a very difficult but very pertinent question. First of all, if we’re going to have high-rise buildings, we have to upgrade our legislation. Concrete buildings have a lifespan. People who buy property in big concrete buildings need to know that, at one point in time, if the building has to go down, they have to move out. You also need to leave enough footprint so that if at one point in time you need to bring down the building, you can do so without damaging the surrounding buildings.

Do I agree with high-rise buildings or not? You have to have economies of scale for a country to prosper. Ideally, if you want to live in a paradise, you’d live in a Malta where the population is 100,000 people. But this would not be economically viable, plus the population is increasing by around 13,000 people a year, Maltese and foreigners.

So you can either keep on expanding laterally or allow – in limited areas and in a limited fashion – for high-rise buildings. If you don’t do that, whether you like it or not, the demands for development in ODZ areas, growth in agricultural areas and the pressure of expanding laterally will continue to increase. So what do you do?

You rehabilitate the many vacant properties, for example.

I’m coming to that. Don’t get me wrong, I am totally against Malta becoming a Singapore. I’ve been to Singapore a number of times, I admire the country, I like going there for five days, but I wouldn’t be buried there. Vacant properties can be rehabilitated but it’s not easy. There are a number of properties not being utilised, I would say in the region of 50,000. But unfortunately there are legal impediments to utilise such properties expeditiously. Most of this property is privately owned.

We live in a democracy. Thankfully, we no longer live in a period where the government had the right to requisition properties. I was always against this. It was disgusting how the government would use private land to undertake social projects. If the government has a social obligation for social projects, then it should invest.

There already are a number of incentives for owners but you need much more. My idea when I was in the other ministry was to create Property Malta, which would come up with ideas on how best to develop these abandoned properties. So there is a huge potential, but you can’t use it tomorrow – you can only use it the day after tomorrow.

The idea of having a limited amount of high-rise is not contrary to the environment. Sometimes high-rise buildings can give you more open spaces, reduce the footprint of buildings and accommodate more people. If done correctly and aesthetically well, they beautify the area.

But my question is: how can we ensure that these high-rise buildings do not follow the fate of the A3 towers in Paola?

By putting the right legislation pen on paper and the right enforcement. Enforcement in environment matters in Malta is very, very, very weak. That’s the truth about it.

So you can either keep on expanding laterally or allow – in limited areas and in a limited fashion – for high-rise buildings

As Environment Minister, do you agree with the scheme sanctioning development illegalities? What message does this give?

Sometimes you come to a point where you’re met with Hobson’s choice. Is it humanly possible to enforce sanctions on thousands and thousands of minor illegalities? No. So it’s about the best of two evils – sanction limitedly those areas which have the least impact on the environment but make sure that from that date onwards, no further illegalities will occur.

I’m not saying we should sanction everything, such as buildings built in a disgusting fashion in areas where they’re not supposed to be built. But I think minor sanctioning would put people in line. Because of minor illegalities, often the property cannot be sold and the bank is not covered. If you sanction minimally, do it but then make sure it doesn’t happen again.

But you yourself have pointed out that enforcement is weak.

One of the areas I’m going to bulldoze over in ERA is enforcement. I am going to create a very strong enforcement branch. At the moment, the enforcement can be delegated to Mepa. But sometimes the priorities of Mepa and the environment are different. That is why the government was correct in splitting them. I don’t think that the ERA should be dependent on Mepa for enforcement. ERA should have its own enforcement arm. You need a form of trained, green police or wardens under the direct leadership of ERA.

We have a lot of nice laws on paper but they’re useless without strengthening enforcement. Enforcement is a problem because we’re a small country and human resources are very limited. That is why NGOs are so essential and have not always been treated as well as they should have been over the years. The NGOs are currently playing a very pivotal role, but in the future I see them taking a primary role in environmental matters and even in patrimonial matters.

Water has always been a scarce resource. Are you considering charging a premium to farmers and bottling companies?

It is one of the recommendations made to me. I haven’t yet formed an opinion because one has to balance the economic impact.

The European turtle dove was placed in the ‘vulnerable’ category in a report on threatened birds produced for the European Commission last year. We held a referendum. Now the hunting community proposed a moratorium and the government went with it. Why didn’t we follow scientific advice in the first place?

The hunting lobby and people involved in hunting have, over the years, become more and more mature. Try and impose a moratorium on the issue in the 1970s. You’d probably have a revolution. The people themselves are becoming more aware.

The referendum was only held last year.

We were given the derogation to hunt quail and turtle dove but EU law states that if a particular species collapses, then you have to stop. This decision was taken just a year later. These things carry a lot of political ramifications. Winston Churchill used to say democracy is not a good form of government – but it is the best in the circumstances. You have to take note of the two different lobby groups. One of the first things I signed in office was the moratorium.

I was happy to sign it and happy that the hunters showed maturity and that they themselves said that the species had collapsed.

But we had the data indicating this fact before. Why didn’t we act before rather than react when the hunters decided to do so?

Take tuna – the tuna stock collapsed in the late 1980s. It doesn’t mean that in the morning, the Prime Minister came, gave an order and stopped fishing, because there are ramifications. One has to act slowly…

There have been €100,000 in direct orders on hunting and trapping. Half of that was just for legal advice from a Brussels firm for the ECJ case on trapping. Is this a burden taxpayers should continue to shoulder for the hobby of a few?

Is that a lot of money or isn’t it? You’re speaking of 16,000 people. It’s not a hobby of three dozen people, three dozen stargazers, for example. It’s a tradition which goes back hundreds of years. Sant Anton was a hunting lodge. If you’re going to spend €200,000 to know where you stand, it’s not that much. We’re not speaking of millions. They deserve an ear.

But why was trapping re-introduced in the first place after it had been phased out and banned in 2009 as part of the EU accession agreement?

It was a political commitment. It’s being controlled and it’s limited. Some might not like it, but there’s a portion of society whose lives revolve around it. Yes, amazing in this day and age, but that’s the way it is.

Sometimes if you make something totally illegal, the ramifications could be negative and not positive. If you control it, sometimes it’s better.

Your predecessor was criticised for his public silence whenever controversial issues hit the environment. Will we have more of the same?

I will not be following suit. I like to express my opinion, I’m renowned for it, even internally. Sometimes it gets you in hot water and slows you down in your career, but I like expressing my opinion.

The Prime Minister told me he wants me to express my opinions, even if I rock the boat. That’s why he wants me there. And yes, I will rock the boat on issues. I haven’t yet done so too aggressively because I’ve only been here for a few weeks and I’m not presumptuous.

Leo [Brincat] is cautious, very serious, very politically correct, very genuine. He’s got no blemishes. I am more vocal so, yes, I will speak out.

Source: Times Of Malta