The Malta Independent 24 September 2018, Monday

Herrera needs to pull his socks up and be assertive on issues like ODZ and fuel stations - Azzopardi

Monday, 19 February 2018, 08:32 Last update: about 7 months ago

The environment, as surveys can attest, is on the forefront of the public’s agenda. This is of no surprise given the unrelenting over-development, often in ODZ, that has been plaguing our country for the better part of three decades. With the issue of good governance falling flat during the last election, it appears that this is an issue where the PN can take advantage and make significant strides in reducing the mammoth 40,000 vote margin. Julian Bonnici met with the new PN Spokesperson for the Environment Jason Azzopardi to see where the party stands on these issues.

Delia has recently reshuffled his shadow cabinet, moving you on from Spokesperson for Justice to Spokesperson for the Environment. Were you disappointed by the decision?

No, I was overwhelmed. Justice is a crucial portfolio and a lawyer it does come naturally to me, but what is clear is that the environment portfolio is a tall order. It's a much more complex subject, there's more to study and there's more to read, and most importantly it affects people in their everyday lives.

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It's a huge responsibility and I have no doubt that come election, the environment, along with good governance and the economy, will be major issues in the political sphere.

When I was the Spokesperson for Justice I was scrutinizing the government's democratic and political credentials, and now I will place this context in the wider sense of the environment, especially with what is going with ODZ and the rampant land speculation taking place.

The fuel-station policy is at the centre of current environmental debate. What is the PN's stance on the issue, especially considering that Ryan Callus formed part of the PA board that approved the controversial fuel station in Maghtab?

I will not comment on a case by basis as to what Ryan Callus voted, as I am not privy to the details of that particular case. My personal belief is that once as a country, we have decided that there is going to be a cut-off date for the use of cars driven by traditional fuel, diesel, and petrol, it does not make sense to build more, larger fuel stations. It verges on the crazy. It's not a question of if, but when this takes place, so the government, the Environment Minister, the Planning Minister, the PA, must provide answers to what they are planning to do and whether they are taking this into consideration when coming up with policy.

On a party level, Marthese Portelli and I have met and exchanged ideas in order to come up with proposals on a wide gamut of issues. We see each other as separate heads of the same entity because the environment and planning complement one another.

This issue is being discussed at a parliamentary level within the environment committee, but I appeal to the Environment Minister to pull his socks up, be assertive, and not wait for an indefinite time to revise this policy. This 'relocation' of petrol stations is eating up huge tracts of land, ODZ land, the size of several dozens of football pitches, a luxury we cannot afford.

 

While there are serious issues facing the little rural space we have, our urban centres are facing severe environmental and infrastructural issues, particularly within Sliema and St Julian's, as a photo you yourself uploaded to social media can attest. Beyond Fort Cambridge and Tigne Point, two towers have been approved with another 15 high-rise developments awaiting approval, what is the PN doing to address this issue?

We need a high-rise policy. My opinion is based on logic. In principle, we should not be against the concept of high-rise itself, where I find an objection is that we are on a spree of high-rise development with a proper master plan or policy without examining the environmental and infrastructural needs of the country. It's too easy to submit an application for a high-rise tower without considerations of what happens next. I simply cannot understand the logic of approving a mega tower in the centre of Paceville, when the master plan for the area was shelved months ago after I don't know how many thousands of euros were thrown down the drain.

And do you intend to present a parliamentary motion?

There are so many issues that it is necessary to have a major policy on the issue. As a party, both Marthese and I will be proposing to the party to establish a proposal and pressure government to come with its own policy.

First things first, we need to have knowledge of the facts and a good brief regarding pending applications to present arguments in this debate. After, a discussion needs to take place within party structures in order to move forward. I cannot speak for the parliamentary group, but it's pretty obvious we need a policy to deal with high-rise buildings.

The government has a huge responsibility to deal with these issues, and I have to say I'm disappointed with the Environment Minister since as far as I can recall, he has failed to pronounce himself on the issue, even though it clear that this has a significant environmental impact.

I respect Jose Herrera, we are long-standing colleagues and he's a gentleman, but he needs to be assertive and proactive on this issue, which affects every one of us.

The issues surrounding Zonqor and AUM remains at the forefront of public and political discourse, what is the PN's stance?

The Leader of the Opposition and the party have made it very clear that this allocation of land is completely uncalled for and we owe it to our country to take that land back. This is pure unadulterated land speculation.

There have been major breaches in the contract, and it is now evident that the Education Minister, when the issue was first debated in parliament in 2015, was in possession of an economic study that showed Sadeen Group was not able to reach the milestones stipulated in the contract.

Around three years ago, the PM is on record saying that he estimated an investment of €105 million and more than 300 students within the first year operations, but today we know that there were 15 students at the start of the year, and now some of them have practically disappeared.

We also know that this particular contract was achieved after a 5-minute meeting between Sadeen and the PM, with no transparency, accountability, and presence of civil servants

I will not let the PM get away with murder. He said it would be an American University, but we know that it is neither. The only American part of it is in its title, and the standards actually had to be lowered to be classified as national higher educational establishment as it could not apply to be a university. One lecturer has even been removed because of his well-known history of plagiarism. Is this the due diligence that was promised by National Commission for Further and Higher Education?

Sadeen Group could not even build a childcare centre in Jordan, let allow be given a prime piece of land right opposite the sea and be given exclusive berthing rights. What educational institution needs exclusive berthing rights? The plan is obvious, to have another structure similar to Tigne' Point, it is blatant daylight robbery of our land.

A rationalization exercise is taking place in San Pawl tat-Targa. What is the PN's stance on the issue?

I have to be honest, I know the major contention is the removal of the soil, however, I have only started this role and I need to be better informed on this specific subject.

What I am aware, is that the Superintendent for Cultural Heritage, prior to 2013, was vociferous and assertive, as he should be, when examining applications that impact our cultural heritage. Something has happened since then. I have the impression that he's lost the timbre of his voice and is doing a massive disservice, not only to his office but to society at large. He has a huge responsibility and it is pertinent to question this when he used to be so assertive? With regards to the application you are referring to, it merits the strong public input of the superintendent.

Fishing is another serious environmental issue in this country, with a fish farm company recently documented to be adding more cages to their farm despite the limitations imposed on them.  What can be done?

My stance is that laws and regulations have to be applied and enforced. I have asked for information and material on the issue. The minister, once again, is conspicuous by his absence. He has an important portfolio and he is taking a backseat. He is giving the impression, and maybe I'm proved wrong, that decisions are being taken on behalf of Jose Herrera by people higher than him on issues intimately part of his portfolio.

 


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