The Malta Independent 20 April 2024, Saturday
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Local councils have lost most of their already limited powers – Briguglio

Kevin Schembri Orland Sunday, 10 September 2023, 08:30 Last update: about 8 months ago

Local councils have lost most of their already limited powers, sociologist and former Sliema local councillor Michael Briguglio told The Malta Independent on Sunday.

The lack of powers bestowed upon councils is having an impact, and this can easily be seen, Briguglio said during an interview, highlighting the current waste issue as one such example.

The issue regarding local councils’ lack of autonomy was brought up by two mayors in separate interviews with The Malta Independent on Sunday - the mayors of St Paul's Bay and Swieqi.

Briguglio stressed that both these mayors - one who comes from the Labour Party and one from the Nationalist Party - are both known for being very active on the ground.

“The introduction of local councils was a revolutionary step in Maltese politics. It had tremendous potential,” Briguglio explained. “It could have led to the decentralisation of power and more pluralism in society. But local councils were always at the mercy of ministers, even under Nationalist Party governments. A reform carried out by the Labour government, however, actually institutionalised this, giving more authority to centralised institutions. In some aspects, due to economies of scale, it does make sense to centralise decision making, but in other aspects (it doesn’t).”

What also worries him, Briguglio said, is that all political parties view the local council elections as secondary elections.

“By secondary I don't only mean vis-a-vie national elections, which one could understand, but also vis-a-vie the EU Parliament elections."

While stressing the importance of electing MEPs, he said that local government elections are also very important. “We should not see them as a stepping stone for prospective ministers. Some local councillors become ministers, and good luck to them, but local councils are about communities, about people who are really interested in the day-to-day experiences of residents."

"Next year we will have the local council elections and, unfortunately, it will be mostly be fought over national issues, when there are many localised ones."

He said that the Labour Party should reverse the reforms that "removed all power from councils.”

As for the Nationalist Party, he said that it should focus on everyday issues as it sometimes comes across as “preaching from the pulpit.” Regarding ADPD, he believes the local council elections are its best chance of getting elected, and that this is where the party’s focus should be.

Asked what he would change about local councils, he said he would first carry out a holistic consultation process for reforms, “not like the ones carried out by the government, which were a top-down approach.”

"Should local councils have more authority on issues like traffic and parking? Why do some local councils have residential parking whilst others do not? Should local councils have more authority on various community issues? Or should they simply wait for the national centralised authority to take action? When it comes to waste management, the system is centralised and there are economies of scale, but we're seeing the impacts of this,” he said.
"It was said at the Sliema protest recently that the locality's population doubled in 10 years, but waste collection in terms of the number of times all bags are collected dropped from nine to six each week. The local councils would be the ones to know what the reality in their locality is. While there are certain areas where councils should be given more authority - parking is one of them, traffic is another. I also think a wide-ranging consultation process is needed."

Asked to elaborate on his idea regarding councils and control over traffic, he asked:

"why should it be a minister who decides which areas are pedestrianised?”

“What we have right now is a person introducing green areas here and there. Local councils seem to just be there to participate in the press conference. These matters should be left up to local councils." He also brought up the idea of green wardens, "an issue under both governments which never really took off. Why should a local council have to beg LESA to send an officer? I'm not saying there shouldn't be a centralised authority, but there are issues which at a national level are very minor.”

He was asked about concerns and complaints regarding overdevelopment, rats in the streets, dust, and the kind of impact these are having on society.
"This is what people are speaking about... dirt, electric scooters, etc. As a society we need to reach a stage where we start to measure social impacts, and unfortunately we haven’t." He mentioned visible instances where, after a development project concluded, a lot of rubbish can be seen outside. "I'm not an architect, but it looks clear to me that there was no planning on waste collection, for example, or for parking. Until a few years ago, this was the story in Sliema and Bugibba. Now it’s all over the place. We are not really measuring the impacts on society."

Social impact deals with a lot of aspects of everyday life, but also issues that politicians don't like to mention, he said. One example he gave was the use of pavements. "Pavements symbolise what our society is all about. In some areas there are no pavements. The pavements we do have are sub-standard. For people with accessibility issues, whether they are persons with disability or a parent with a pushchair... pavements are not safe. How can we speak about an accessible society and yet we don't even have accessible pavements? That means that we are not measuring social impacts.”

He argued in favour of mainstreaming the analysis of social impacts in development projects and in policies.

He said that the measuring of social impacts must be done in a more structured way. Asked how he would go about doing this, Briguglio said that the most obvious example would be for the Planning Authority to include more social impact assessments. He said that a Masters degree in Social Impact Assessment is being introduced within the Department of Sociology at the University of Malta next year. “There are many ways how sociology can be applied, but this is one practical way, policymaking. Let me give the most visible example. When there are development projects, and this doesn't just apply to major projects, but also to small projects, they can cumulatively have an impact on traffic, on people's accessibility, on the collection of waste."

He agreed that for some major projects social impact assessments are already carried out, but said that it’s not a very structured approach and "it’s quite arbitrary. It’s for certain mega projects, and in truth social impact assessments shouldn't be a one-off survey. If one looks at what the International Association for Social Impact Assessments says, social impact assessments are ongoing processes. For example, when a development was planned, they might not have foreseen that there would be no space to put the waste out and in that area waste could be seen all over the pavement. A social impact assessment would constantly reveal the needs of the area. Such assessments have to be mainstreamed all across the development process, not just for certain mega projects, and they should be ongoing."
One thing he positively noted, he said, was that when Regional Councils were introduced, the law regulating them mentioned measuring social impacts, and, he said, this is an opportunity which can be used. "Some Regional Councils are employing such assessments."

Briguglio said that before the EU Parliament elections in 2019, the Planning Authority and the government had launched a consultation process on social impact assessments. "It was never followed up.”

Told that there are people concerned about overdevelopment, yet there are others who are just ignoring this and developing anyway, he said: “When I was a local councillor, there were some who would complain about the development next door when they were developers themselves. There's nothing wrong with being a developer. There are big businesspeople who have a lot of influence yes, but there is a lot of small-scale development taking place also, which is understandable as people are participating in the development process, making money and renting the property out. This also helps explain the Labour Party's electoral victory, many people are participating in the development process. But on the other hand, it is having a huge impact. We are overdependent on development."

 

“I don't want to condemn people for taking part in an economic sector, but I'm very concerned that this sector is unsustainable. What we need to do is try to diversify our economy. That is something where government isn't performing well." He said people only have property as an avenue to invest in. 

"There is greed, but to relate all development to greed is very simplistic, in my opinion. There are many people who invest in development because they might have inherited some money, or inherited some property. Maybe it doesn't pay to save the money in the bank or to invest it elsewhere. As a society, we need to look at how we can diversify our economy, and I don't think government is performing very well on this point."
There is also the cost of living issue, he said. “There are many who do not own property who cannot keep up with the cost of living.”

He was asked about overpopulation and its impacts on society. Surveys show that this is a major concern for Maltese, he said.

“In the Eurobarometer surveys, over the past decade or so, migration was the major concern in many of them. But while I think that migration is still a major concern, it’s more focused on overpopulation now. I'm not saying population growth is necessarily bad, there are positive aspects. If a population stops growing, society would decline. The issue is that we are seeing the impact when it comes to basic infrastructure not coping - sewage and waste being two examples.”

Population growth has become more pronounced because it grew by over 20% in a decade, which is a huge percentage, he added.

Asked if he thinks this is creating an “us vs them” mentality, he said many are highly concerned. "I'm basing this on what I'm seeing through surveys, and what I see as a sociologist. I think there's a lot of resentment, so much so that the government recently said that it is trying to limit the number of non-EU nationals living in Malta. 
“Some resentment is downright racist, but I disagree with the notion that all who are concerned with overpopulation are racist. A lot of people are concerned with overpopulation not because they are racist, but because there is no space anymore and our infrastructure cannot cope.”
He also asked whether the country is investing enough in integration.

"We are importing a lot of workers as cheap labour, and they are being exploited. We hear these stories that they are brought over, they pay their NI payments and leave, as though we are not even seeing them as human beings, but just as transactions." He said that not enough is being invested in integration.

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