The Malta Independent 20 April 2024, Saturday
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The proposed Gozo rural airfield

Michael Briguglio Thursday, 26 May 2022, 07:46 Last update: about 3 years ago

The Gozo Regional Development Authority, on behalf of the Government of Malta, recently launched a public consultation process on the proposed rural airfield in Xewkija, Gozo. A document entitled ‘Gozo Rural Airfield – Regional Impact Statement’ was published for this purpose.

According to the document, the project “entails the regeneration and upgrade of the derelict heliport at Ta’ Lambert in Xewkija into an airfield for use by small propeller-driven aeroplanes (fixed-wing), small helicopters (rotary-wing), drones (both fixed and rotary-wing unmanned air vehicles), as well as for other ancillary activities.”

The document adds that “the proposed development of the airfield covers an area of around 76,000 sqm which incorporates the runway, four aprons, plus other airside facilities which already exist. The project envisages the extension of the existing 174m long runway by a further 271-metres, to reach a total length of 445 metres. The runway will be 20-metres wide and will include 30-metre-wide grass safety areas on each side”.

The Regional Impact Statement states that it will be used as a basis for the upcoming “Impact Assessment” for the project proposal, and that this “entails consultation with the community members and relevant stakeholders.” The Gozo Regional Development Authority and the Ministry of Gozo will then prepare an “Impact Assessment Report” and this will then be followed by an “Outcome Statement” at the end of the process.

Within the public sphere, various statements were made on the Airfield proposal. It is also obviously expected that other feedback has been made beyond the front stage of media coverage.

Here I wish to refer to the feedback made by the Malta Sociological Association, of which I am Public Relations Officer, on the proposed development.

In particular, the Malta Sociological Association noted that in section 6  ‘Potential Impacts and Benefits of the Proposed Intervention’, the Regional Impact Statement says that as regards ‘socio-economic impacts’, “to assess the expected socio-economic impacts and benefits of the proposed Airfield project, the Ministry for Gozo (proponent of the project) commissioned a Cost Benefits Analysis study.” The main findings of this study are then presented, and further information is available online.

A cost-benefits analysis study can indeed be a useful policy tool, but it does not provide a comprehensive assessment of social impacts. To be fair, the consultation document does not state that the cost-benefits study is assuming the role of a social impact assessment.

In this regard, the Malta Sociological Association proposed that a social impact assessment (SIA) be commissioned on the development proposal.  The SIA should be carried out by qualified sociologists through an open public call.

An SIA can use plural research methods, and should involve different stakeholders,  including experts in different disciplines, persons affected on the ground, residents, and civil society representatives.  The exercise should not be a one-off exercise, but rather, it should be an ongoing process which engages, analyses, reports and recommends during the various stages of the policy process. Moreover, the SIA process should be subject to peer-review by independent experts.

Even though SIAs are sometimes commissioned by the Planning Authority on certain development proposals, Malta does not yet have a streamlined national policy on Social Impact Assessments. The Planning Authority had launched a consultation process on this just before the 2019 European and Local elections. The conclusions (if any) of this consultation process were never published.

However, should the Gozo Regional Development Authority wish to peruse good practice in the field, it can refer to SIA standards, for example of the International Association for Impact Assessment (IAIA).

On the other hand, last June, the Government of Malta published its post-Pandemic strategy, which amongst other points, endorsed a proposal made by the Malta Sociological Association, namely that social impact assessments are to be conducted more widely “across policy making, legislation, investment and development projects” to ensure that “the intended and unintended social consequences, both positive and negative, of planned intervention” are monitored and managed. The post-Pandemic strategy adds that clear national SIA guidelines are recommended.

Whilst the latter have yet to be developed, this should not prohibit current policy proposals from carrying out SIAs. The Gozo Rural Airfield is a case in point.

Dr Michael Briguglio is a sociologist and senior lecturer at the University of Malta


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