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Friday, April 20, 2007
< Another political garden >
by Harry Vassallo
Listening to the people quizzed by Net TV journalists, the newly-inaugurated garden deep in the embrace of the Cottonera bastions is an unmitigated blessing, a gift and a hope for the future. The event was highly publicised also in the daily and Sunday newspapers with pretty pictures making a display of the government's attention to a hitherto depressed and neglected area. Innocent bystanders must nod in agreement with Net TV interviewees. How can a new public garden be anything but a positive development?
Not so Mepa's audit officer. In the Mepa annual report for 2006 he noted with regret that this is another case in which the Ministry of Works and Infrastructure proceeded with works while the development application was still being processed. It is noted as a failure by Mepa to be effective with regard to a government body in insisting on the rule of law.
Most people will shrug it off: It was a government project for evident public utility. Why waste time with planning bureaucracy? The audit officer seems to think that if the law has been written it should be obeyed until it is changed. So would most reasonable people. In his report on this development, the audit officer goes much further describing how far Mepa bent backwards to ignore the complainants' objections and to ignore all considerations other than the fact that the government wanted to install a public garden where once a well-established wooded area had been.
While planning policy describes the limited development that can legally be undertaken in such areas, the project put in paths and gazebos, fountains and whatnot, which the audit officer describes as a waste of public money likely to suffer the same fate as other similar projects in recent years.
Bystanders who are not so innocent will realise that this is an election year and the government had to be seen to be doing something in the Cottonera area. As happens with those pathetic local councils which save their funds for a pre-election splurge, the government is boasting of the expense of Lm500,000 in this project. It is in this context that the pale objections of the Cospicua local council are interpreted.
A Labour majority in the local council is expected to be attempting to minimise the electoral benefit to the government, to claim its own share of the limelight after having dedicated some of its funds to the expensive but popular illegal development.
It is reported as whinging about not having been properly invited to the opening ceremony and in complaining about not having been consulted in the choice of a name for the place. Even as their complaints are reported, they are criticised in between the lines for complaining.
I have every reason to wish and hope that once such a sum of public money has been expended on this garden, that it will be enjoyed for generations to come by Cospicua residents and their guests. However, I do not count this to be very probable. The public gardens of Paola remain an unpleasant precedent. The old one is peppered with syringes and the new one likewise, with the addition of significant vandalism in the lighting fixtures and other park furniture. The Paola gardens are overlooked by residences all around; the Cospicua development is far more secluded.
So am I against the embellishment of the Cottonera area? Hardly. Against the expense of Lm500,000? Not at all. I would have spent it otherwise. Perhaps I would have spent more. How about a technological fix to the vertical stratification of the town? Quick, comfortable and safe urban mobility between Market Square at the high end of town and Gavino Gulia Square by means of a tunnel and elevators could work wonders. Aging residents would no longer be trapped in their homes by streets of stairs. Residents with young children would benefit from a lift also. It's not rocket science. The real estate value of the whole area would be instantly enhanced. But how does one take pretty pictures of tunnels and lifts for electoral purposes? Gardens are much better even if they only last a few months.
How about spending that Lm500,000 in enhancing existing programmes to increase employability in the area? The results so far are very encouraging. Rather than throwing mere money at the problem why not enlarge the scope of such programmes, give them greater publicity in the area and aim at giving local residents a hope of ownership of developments on their doorsteps such as the Cottonera Waterfront and SmartCity? Of course, a few tens of people going from the unemployment register to a job and a mortgage may not make headline news but it would certainly change things for their families and begin to change things for the better in their community.
How much of that Lm500,000 would one need to engage the invaluable existing resource of solidarity in the area? Unlike many new areas that lack a perceptible social fabric, the communities in the Cottonera area still possess a powerful set of values allowing them to act together in times of need. How about taking advantage of it to identify instances other than crises in which they can help one another? If all the actors in the area, NGOs, local councils and public authorities, were to get together with a budget of Lm500,000, would building a public garden be all they would come up with? Is this what is needed first and foremost? How much would it cost to set and secure a target of 100 per cent literacy in the Cottonera area by 2010? Would it be worthwhile? How about looking at school achievement and providing tailor-made assistance to enhance it? Will a public garden allow today's Cottonera children to participate fully in tomorrow's hi-tech world? Or will it simply dazzle a few voters?
After 16 years of socialist rule, the Cottonera area still looked worse than anywhere else in the country. Alternattiva Demokratika has the video to prove it. We showed it as part of our election campaign in 1992. After 20 years of Nationalist rule, barely interrupted by the rise and fall of another socialist government, the Cottonera area has not made more than a few faltering steps forward and most of them because the rest of the country has moved on.
Time and again the population had been used and abused as electoral cannon fodder. It has never been encouraged, allowed or empowered to recognise its challenges and to deal with them through its own existing strengths and energies. The Cospicua garden is the latest and the least of the projects thrown at the area in the hope that something will happen there without engaging the population.
The Cottonera Waterfront Project has been a colossal flop in social terms by being foisted onto the pre-existing social context as an alien graft. Labour richly deserved to lose the 1998 election for having designed the deal like the Nationalists. SmartCity is a superduper Cospicua public garden and looks like it will be an alien graft like no other. How will the new generations in the area relate to it if they are left to record the highest rates of illiteracy and the lowest in educational achievement? What use will it be to them or to the bright new world so loudly advertised?
Assuming that we all paid an equal share of the cost of the Cospicua garden, it has cost me little more than Lm1. Still, I resent the squandering of public money on electoral baubles when so much needs to be done and so little money is found to do it between elections. I resent this garden and its celebration particularly because it was pushed through regardless of the rule of law and regardless of reasonable objections simply to gain a passing electoral advantage. We all deserve better than this, not only Cospicua residents.
Dr Vassallo is chairman of Alternattiva Demoktratika - The Green Party.
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