The Malta Independent 26 June 2022, Sunday

Deckchairs at Blue Lagoon and tables on pavements

Stephen Calleja Sunday, 19 June 2022, 10:30 Last update: about 7 days ago

What activists of the Graffitti movement did a few days ago in Comino earned admiration and support from many, and quite surprisingly, led to action being taken.

Members of the group turned up at Blue Lagoon yesterday week to remove deckchairs that had been placed on the shoreline, taking up public space, and preventing bathers who did not require their use from having a swim without the inconvenience that this beach furniture caused.

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The action was reminiscent of what the group called Tan-Numri did in the 1980s. In those years, youngsters used to meet Sunday mornings in protest, with the most daring one being their shouts of “ahna rridu xandir hieles” (we want free broadcasting) during an episode of the then Xandir Malta’s Sunday morning magazine programme Bongu Malta at Bahrija.

Different eras, different protests, but the significance of the action remains the same. Thankfully, the Graffitti protest pushed the government into ordering that no sunbeds are placed on the sand, while the number of deckchairs allowed on the quay has been reduced.

For someone who has never been to Comino, the Blue Lagoon beach is nowhere near Copacabana, which runs for four kilometres. The Blue Lagoon sandy patch stretches for a few metres and even the presence of 50 persons makes it feel crowded, let alone the hundreds who arrive by boat from every corner of Malta and Gozo.

It was once an idyllic place to be but, like many other areas, it has lost its spell. Yet, even if it were a larger beach – and there are many in Malta and Gozo – what is public should remain public.

It is a battle that is faced every year, always at the start of summer, when people start flocking to the beach. With an exponential growth of the population, and Malta’s beaches remaining the same size (or are they shrinking?) space is now even more limited. And many feel frustrated that the more popular spots are already occupied by deckchairs and umbrellas when they arrive for a few hours by the sea.

Beaches

The action taken by Graffitti took place on the same day that The Malta Independent published comments taken from the Tourism Minister about the situation on beaches.

His topsy-turvy remarks must have angered the activists – and the public in general, given the feedback received on the story on the social media.

Rather than defend the people’s right of access to public beaches, his comments were interpreted to mean that Clayton Bartolo was taking the side of the beach operators.

The people have the right to request that deckchairs and umbrellas set up by operators to be removed, Bartolo said.

It should be the other way round. Deckchairs and umbrellas should be placed by operators only if bathers request them. What’s happening is that when people turn up on beaches, they find most of the areas already taken up by umbrellas and deckchairs.

Bathers, then, should not be the ones to tell the operators to remove unutilised deckchairs and umbrellas. It should be the authorities concerned who should be doing it. But it seems that the minister has given up hope that these authorities can do their job.

Jason Micallef

The head of the Labour Party media, Jason Micallef, went one step further than the NGO group, demanding resignations, given that these authorities have not been able to control the situation. The authorities were set up to regulate what goes on, but illegalities continue to be committed, he said.

“You know who you are,” Micallef charged in his post on Facebook. But it is unclear if Micallef was also suggesting that Bartolo has also failed.

Micallef is right to say that the majority of the Maltese people are fed up with the situation, which does not pertain only to Comino. Public sentiment following the Graffitti protest was all in favour of the activists. Even TVM, which is usually reluctant to report on matters that could harm the government, covered the protest.

Pavements

This takes us to another issue, which is related to the “occupation” of the Blue Lagoon beach.

And this is the taking over of pavements by restaurant, cafeteria and bar owners. It’s happening all over the country that tables and chairs, and canopies and umbrellas, and heaters (in winter) and fans (in summer) are placed out in the streets to extend the restaurant area to outside the establishments.

Many of these outlets in Malta and Gozo – particularly, but not only, in tourist zones – are filling up squares and pavements with street furniture, and of course making money from patrons who use their services. All with a permit to do so, of course, but this often creates a conflict with the needs of pedestrians, especially in cases where the space taken up is more than should be allowed.

This often leads to situations that make it difficult for pedestrians to walk through what should be public areas. Families with prams and pushchairs, and persons on wheelchairs find it harder. Older people and others with mobility issues sometimes have to step onto the road to continue to their destination. Only last week, an ambulance could not pass through a street in Valletta because of the way tables and chairs were spread out. It was not the first time it happened.

One understands the need to do business, and in a country where the climate is favourable, such as Malta’s, eating outdoors especially in the warmer months is a practice enjoyed by many. But this should not come at the expense of others and the general surroundings.

We have seen how hideous enclosures have found a place outside outlets whose owners seek a vaster space so as to accommodate their clients. Some of these occupy also part of the street, reducing parking spaces and, added to this, spoil the visuals.

It is difficult to reverse a situation that has grown out of hand, especially as more and more permits are being requested and dished out. The Covid-19 situation accelerated the growth of alfresco entertainment, as many patrons preferred an outdoors setting to limit risks. More than 100 outlets sought permission to extend their services outdoors in 2021, as against the 63 applications received in 2020 and 68 a year earlier.

This has inevitably meant that more public space is being taken up by these outlets.

The least that could be done is that these public places remain easily accessible to pedestrians who do not want to dine out or have a coffee, but simply want to pass through.

Even here, some kind of enforcement is needed too but, as happens in most cases, the authorities do not have the manpower and often close an eye too.

What is public is ours

While we’re mentioning public spaces, it must be pointed out that defending what is ours is a sacrosanct right. But if we believe – and rightly so – that what is public belongs to us all, then we must all work so much harder to keep it in shape and, most of all, clean.

It would be contradictory if, on the one hand, we demand that what is public remains public, and then, on the other hand, we do not give our share to keep it clean.

If we expect to find beaches free of deckchairs because they are taking up public space, then we should not leave those same beaches without cleaning up and disposing of our unwanted items properly.

If we expect our pavements and squares to remain accessible to the public, then we should not dump unwanted mattresses and fridges on the sides of roads, and throw used tissues and cigarette stubs out of car windows, or fail to stick to the garbage collection schedule.

The argument can be extended to all other public areas: gardens, the countryside, playing fields, valleys, parks and the rest.

We must all make an effort to keep all public places clean.

 

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