The Malta Independent 13 August 2022, Saturday

The sonic battle of Valletta

Mary Muscat Sunday, 31 July 2022, 10:36 Last update: about 14 days ago

The sonic battle of Valletta’s extended bar and restaurant opening hours is a legal conundrum that goes beyond the issue of simply amending the trading licences’ legislation. It’s a test case of legal short-sightedness of the same sort that I wrote about two weeks ago in a blog piece entitled, Local mayhem.

Legally, the legislator seems to have ignored the principles dictated by the buon vicinato institute in our laws. Good neighbourliness, that is promoted through our civil law precepts. It goes beyond mere tolerance, it’s a practice whereby residential land use is respected and residents are given priority over commercial activities. The exercise often boils down to the “who came first” argument, but it’s not limited to the chronological development of the area or to a simple exercise in noise abatement. Nor is it a simple exercise of establishing damages for the nuisance caused. Incidentally, its close cousin in Criminal Law is the maintenance of good order and to some extent, the Code of Police Laws had instances of such good governance even as far back as the 1850s, when it was enacted, with examples of environmental management that nowadays falls within the remit of the environmental health inspectorate. The two traditional spheres of law, in fact, go had in hand but not just, as there are other laws that overlap.

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Buon vicinato predates any planning law and the right to privacy as we know it today, and yet the concept escapes the present day legislator. Valletta is a case in point. There’s a triangulation of noise, light pollution and littering that is caused by catering in a residential area, which also happens to be a historical site, and an administrative hub. There is also the criminogenic dimension to this, as such activities are known to generate different types of vandalism; but that’s an argument I’ll reserve for another blog.

The level of noise that is generated by the daily hustle and bustle can be capped to a sustainable level but the culture of milking the cow has superseded logic many times in the Capital. Even now, there’s no legal excuse for excluding the residents from the discussion of issues having an environmental impact, which is what the Aarhus Convention promotes. But those legal provisions seem to have been blocked in the traffic jam outside Portes de Bombes. I remember studying a novel for my Italian A level way back that reflected the environmental, social and economic racism of south Italy: Cristo si e’ fermato a Eboli. The locals had to resign to the idea that justice applied everywhere except to their hometown, in the same way that figuratively, Jesus must have stopped in the neighbouring town. So it seems that the established legal standards apply everywhere else but not in Valletta.

In fact, human rights cater for the right to a private life, and there were cases brought before the courts in Strasbourg concerning the disturbance of peace, especially sleep, by bars and restaurants. Mind you, don’t search for “sleep deprivation” in the human rights database, because that will churn up torture cases, where loud music is blasted all night and the brightest lights are switched on to deprive the arrested persons from sleeping. Yes, sleep deprivation is truly a health hazard.

The Moreno-Gomez versus Spain case of 2004 concerned a resident of Valencia who had been living in her flat since 1970. In 1974 the City of Valencia allowed bars, discos and restaurants to open up in that residential area and by 1980 the acoustic saturation was too unbearable for the residents, and it felt more like an acoustic assault. The ordeal continued for years in a highly contested and adversarial manner. The European Court concluded that there was indeed a violation of Article 8 of the Convention and the State was ordered to pay damages.

The Oluic versus Croatia case of 2010 also clearly violated the resident’s right to privacy when part of the building she was living in was leased as a bar, exposing her flat to excessive sound from 7am to midnight every day.

There is a positive obligation of the State to protect such privacy and to make sure that there is the necessary infrastructure to do so. There is so much to answer for, as Valletta is also a World Heritage Site. It seems that noise pollution is seriously misunderstood or not prioritised among the gamut of pollution sources in our country in spite of established benchmarks such as WHO’s night noise guidelines for Europe published in 2009.

Paris, for example, has its own bruit plan, but we seem to get distracted by pseudo-environmental efforts such as vertical gardens rather than tackle quality of life issues as overt and as glaring as Valletta’s residential situation.

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