Trees hit headlines
Friday May 4, 2018
Alfred E Baldacchino
The last couple of months saw trees in the news.
Following the collapse, on February 10, of a mismanaged, unprofessionally pruned alien tree on the Mrieħel road, which led to the death of a foreigner, a spokesman for an entity paid out of public funds, was interviewed on a local TV station. He did not deny that the management of the trees in that particular road was their responsibility.
April 9 saw another fatal accident in Żurrieq where a double-decker tourist bus “hit low-lying tree branches resulting in two dead tourists, 50 injured and some ending in intensive care, one needing a major operation” (Times of Malta, April 10).
“Transport watchdog has long recognised trees as road hazards” read a heading in this newspaper (April 15). It referred to an “EU directive regarding road safety audits, impact assessments, inspections and high-frequency collision investigations”. The guidelines drawn in the light of this EU directive, outlined the fact that trees and landscaping are a “potential roadside hazard” and “need to be taken into account”.
In all honesty, the transport watchdog does not have the necessary acumen, adequate paraphernalia or professional personnel to plan, monitor, and professionally manage roadside trees. They rely on contractors.
Trees do not grow on their own in urban areas. They are planted, monitored and managed by contractors paid from public funds. So it is not the trees that are road hazards. It is the contractors who are responsible for their upkeep, ensuring that trees are managed aesthetically, professionally, and not posing a road hazard.
Trees do not move from the place where they are planted. If a tree has a 15- year-old branch protruding onto the road, it is not the fault of the tree, but that of unprofessional management. Even schoolchildren are today conscious and aware of proper tree management.
Following the ever-increasing negative impacts of such mismanagement and lack of awareness of international biodiversity obligations, a copy of the agreement for landscaping was requested on June 23, 2015. An agreement which the government and a private-public partner signed on October 31, 2012.
This request was vehemently refused by the Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure (under Joe Mizzi) on July 23, 2015, as was the subsequent appeal, on August 13, 2015.
On August 19, 2015, the matter was referred to the Information and Data Protection Commissioner. The commissioner’s decision of January 19, 2016 “considers that the public interest is better served by providing the applicant with a copy of the requested document” and “the commissioner has resolved that there are no impediments to release a copy of the agreement.
“Hence in the spirit of transparency and accountability as contemplated by the Act, the MTI [Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure] is instructed to acceed to Mr Baldacchino’s request by not later than twenty-five (25) working days from the receipt of this decision”.
One would have thought that such a matter would have been solved within weeks. But it seems, not in Malta
Subsequently a letter from the commissioner informed me that an appeal by the ministry (still under Mizzi) had been lodged to the Information and Data Protection Appeals Tribunal.
Almost two years from the initial request, the Information and Data Protection Appeals Tribunal decided, refusing the appeal made by the Ministry for Transport and Infrastructure, confirming the decision reached by the Commissioner of Information and Data Protection, ordering that a copy of such agreement signed between the government and ELC on October 31, 2001 should be given to applicant.
The Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure in 2017 said that legal proceedings were instituted by the ELC (Environment Landscaping Consortium) before the first hall of the Civil Court, “arguing that the decision of the Commissioner for the Protection of Data should be declared null and void”. Judgement had to be reached in December 2017, but the sitting has already been postponed twice.
As a member of the European Union, and also a signatory to the Aarhus Convention (Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters), one would have thought that such a matter would have been solved within weeks. But it seems, not in Malta.
What is the reason for such objections? The National Audit Office (NAO) published a ‘Performance Audit: Landscaping maintenance through a Public-Private Partnership’, dated September 2017. This throws a lot of light on possible reasons.
Topics covered in such report deal with: the non-availability of management accounts; no details regarding questions asked; contractor’s evident non-compliance on a number of issues; the government’s limited enforcement actions; arising questions regarding the financial and economic considerations revolving around the agreement; the non-submission of management accounts constituting a contractual breach; government’s lack of knowledge of the contractor’s financial input not conducive to a balanced partnership;
Contract rates higher than other landscaping agreements signed by governmental entities; operational and financial information gaps not appropriately safeguarding the government’s position as a partner within this agreement; contractual deficiencies that incorporated two subsequent addenda, as well as a number of elements of contractual non-compliance, generally, having their roots within the 2002 contract, beside others.
One of the conclusion the NAO report came to is that: “The contractor’s non-compliance remains evident on a number of issues. In some cases, deviations from contractual clauses that date back to 2002 impact negatively on government’s direct and broader interests.
“Contractual non-compliance prevailed in the face of government’s limited enforcement action. In such circumstances, government’s position shifted from one where action could be initiated to dissolve this PPP Agreement, to one where prolonged weak enforcement implied tacit consent” (page 55).
To these financial observations, the immediate and long-term negative impacts on the Maltese ecosystem must also be taken in consideration.
What is the next immediate step? The Minister for Finance has to decide: either the dissolution of the agreement in the national interest, or the dishing out of an additional €8 million for the continuation of the implied tacit consent of such non-compliance.
Alfred Baldacchino is a former assistant director of the Malta Environment and Planning Authority’s environment directorate.