Mario Fava: Residents expect the Councils to be at the heart of their communities
Conversation with the President of Local Councils' Association of Malta
- 13 de agosto de 2020 11:30
- Aseniya Dimitrova
Mario Fava has been involved in local government for the past 20 years and for nearly four of them he has been the President of the Local Councils’ Association. He is currently a local councillor in Fgura, a consultant for the Ministry of Justice, Culture and Local Government and for the Ministry of European Affairs and Equality, among others.
As part of his international work, Mr Fava is a member of the Executive Board of the European Cities against Drugs in Stockholm, head of the Maltese Delegations at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg and the European Committee of the Regions in Brussels.
Mr Fava, the LCA has been representing the 68 local councils in Malta since their creation in 1994. What has it achieved throughout these years?
Policies and administrative set-ups have to undergo a process of renewal and change. The reform carried out last year at the local government level had this specific reason; to change and renew the whole system whilst undertaking an in-depth assessment of the sector.
Residents’ expectations have grown, as can be expected after 25 years. I believe that during these years, we managed to make a difference and make our residents' lives better. Structures were strengthened and people started believing more in their local representatives.
Overall, Maltese local councils have limited responsibilities and powers. In what ways has their scope evolved?
Local councils in Malta are not financially autonomous; they are financed by the Central Government. Local councils in Malta are responsible (in their respective localities) for:
- Sports and physical activities
- The elderly
- Social aspects.
In October, the Association launched its Vision 2024, aimed to improve the quality of life for residents of Malta. Tell us more about this plan and what changes it is expected to bring about.
Although I have been a councillor for the past 19 years, I started this exciting journey as the President of the Local Councils' Association three and a half years ago.
I had the opportunity to meet most of all councillors personally and witnessed first-hand their hard work, dedication and determination as well as their passion for their localities. And all of that, despite the challenges and setbacks they face on a day to day basis.
Last year's local elections reaffirmed that local government is a fundamental matter in people's lives. Residents and their families rightly look to their councils for support. They expect the Councils to be at the heart of their communities.
Residents demand effective services that improve their local economies. They aspire for a local community that can deliver new jobs and create safety. They ask for the right policies that ensure that their families will possess the skills they need to succeed.
As democratically elected leaders, councillors make the most of their limited powers and funding to support local communities. With the right vision and guidance, the right skills and reasonable levels of investments, councils can do much more to improve the quality of peoples' lives and the wellbeing of our nation.
We now need to look forward to a new chapter in local government. We need to aim towards a local government that fulfils our residents' aspirations for a better quality of life. We need to focus on preventing problems instead of just picking up the pieces. Our services need to be built around people and their requirements, enhancing the lives of individuals, families and communities by providing better places to live.
This vision is possible if our message is aligned and well communicated. This is where the Association comes in.
At first, we need to improve our internal and external communication systems. I am a firm believer in leading by example to deliver change. To mark the start of a new journey, the Association invested in a comprehensive branding project that will reinforce who we are and what we stand for…
In local administrations, the need for a motivated, well informed and collaborative workforce is perhaps more critical than elsewhere. With council employees responsible for daily communication, residents can have access to up-to-date and correct information about the public services being on offer. This kind of work supports the council in achieving its objectives.
The Local Councils' Association has just launched an internal cloud communication system that will soon be available to all Mayors, Councillors, Executive Secretaries and administrative employees. This user-friendly tool will ensure access for every authorised user without being completely dependent on email communication.
It will contain all news, events, photographic and video galleries, also allowing access to relevant circulars letters, policies, records, minutes and agendas. The system simplifies the management of committees', facilitates record-keeping and safely stores files and related documentation.
Users will have access to employee and site directories, manage their leave and holiday applications. The system would be available on web browsers as well as on smartphones.
Our residents have the right to know what their local government is doing. In a well-functioning democracy, the authorities provide reliable, timely and transparent information to the public.
Given the above, we have reorganised our external communication systems, with some projects already being implemented, while others will be launched by the end of this year. A newly revamped website now contains all the necessary information, including a press section. There is also a reorganisation of our social media platforms, adding Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter and a YouTube channel in addition to our Facebook page…
LCA understands the role that our localities play in the lives of residents and is committed to acting in this area. Councils have a shared obligation with the central government, to offer a quality of life and opportunities that make people want to live, work or start a business locally.
The Government's ambition is to create a more competitive, sustainable and inclusive nation in an increasingly globalising world. The local councils need to work towards a future of healthy, attractive and vibrant localities, which provide current and future generations with beautiful spaces to live, work and relax in. This is key to ensuring long term sustainable economic growth.
The Association recognizes that there are no simple 'one size fits all' solutions to achieve this. This is meant to set a coherent vision and a general direction for individual councils. We support a broad exchange of ideas and best practice between all councils with the common aim to improve residents' lives. To that end, our 'Vision 20-24' (see graphic below) is based on four pillars: Sustainable Mobility, Green Environment, Open Spaces and Smart Cities.
Some years ago - Citizen First would have been the most appropriate name. But this is Malta, where between 2020 and 2024, the foreign population is expected to keep growing, and the presence of ex-pats living in our communities has become a new reality.
This brings new challenges, but also new opportunities. It is the role of the councils to create a platform of social inclusiveness so local communities can benefit from this diversity and prosper. For this reason, we named our vision RESIDENT FIRST.
I will briefly go into each pillar which represents this ambitious Vision.
The Four Pillars representing Vision 2024 are Sustainable Mobility, Urban Green, Open Spaces and Smart Cities. Image: LCA
Walking is the most basic and fundamental mode of human mobility. It is free, good for our health and one of the most sustainable transport choices. Walking a few blocks or crossing a street in our localities has become inconvenient and unsafe. It is not that we do not have a desire to walk, but it is our built environment that does not allow us to.
Councils must safeguard the residents' right of walking and their safety in all localities. Our streets are more than movement corridors for vehicles. They are, first and foremost, part of the public space network, a social space where people gather, interact, move and socialise.
Therefore, the Association is working with experts in this field to come up with guideline documents on:
Walkability and Accessibility
Last Mile Transportation
These documents will give an equal focus on the qualitative aspects that enhance the walking experience. We will provide 'on the ground' understanding of the various types of pedestrianisation and infrastructure, from fully pedestrianised routes to pavements, as well as design principles for each, through a mix of technical data and good practice case studies. We will give insights on providing comfort and public safety on the street through various means, such as the provision of trees, the integration of street furniture elements and the design of safe access-for-all spaces and streets.
Finally, we will address the interface between building facades, parking spaces and their management and the administration of pavement appropriation, including outdoor catering areas.
All this to give localities back to their residents, especially to our elderly, children, and people with reduced mobility.
Providing a well-designed green environment means providing for increased well-being and quality of life, as evidenced by numerous studies worldwide. A green environment may have different forms – from parks to tree-lined streets – but either way, it refers to the provision of nature and the retention of biodiversity in our built environment. Not surprisingly, the natural and living environment is one of the nine dimensions of the quality of life indicators defined by the European Union.
A greener lifestyle means understanding that the long-term benefits of working with nature are far greater than the short-term gains which cause irreversible damage to the environment. This is achieved by making everyday choices towards greater sustainability, such as reducing our water and energy consumption and reducing our waste, and dependence on plastic.
This is where councils are expected to join in. Councils in partnership with stakeholders can genuinely change the environment we live in by helping people make the right choices and leading by example. Residents should be at the core of the councils' strategies. All stakeholders should take part in the decision-making process so that policies are genuinely inclusive.
The Association will publish guidelines wherein critical environmental issues and concepts, that will initiate successful steps toward sustainable cities and long-term sustainable living. The guidelines will encourage local councils to implement the principles in practice and to promote partnerships with all stakeholders and residents to address several issues holistically. We will look at different ways of greening our urban environment and of safeguarding and introducing more biodiversity in our living spaces.
Open spaces are the urban areas that are freely accessible by the public, and function as the common ground for social activities and interaction to take place. They are the spaces in between the buildings – our streets, urban cores, piazzas, plazas and urban squares.
Areas where we can exercise and play – playgrounds, sports terrains, parks, beaches and the sea. Public spaces are also green spaces. They provide biodiversity in the urban environment, a critical part of our open space network.
Green public spaces are very beneficial to both the built environment and the image of our settlements as they provide immense aesthetic value. They are the physical boundaries between buildings and become the ground for social activities to occur, increasing vitality within our neighbourhoods and limiting social exclusion.
Even the World Health Organisation considers urban open spaces as very important to human physical and mental health. Unfortunately, public space in Malta is limited, and open spaces are also decreasing.
It is the role of the local council to protect, maintain, restore and properly design our urban cores and historical heritage, and also to identify ways of making better use of publicly and privately-owned open but inaccessible spaces.
As with the other pillars, the Association is working on a set of documents, guidelines and policies to assist the councils in defining and transforming their open spaces strategically. This will focus on the regeneration of our urban cores, open up restricted government-owned properties such as schools, gardens and sports facilities and work with private investors to increase open spaces for the benefit of our residents.
We want local councils to be able to fulfil their crucial role in transforming policies into awareness and action among local communities and organisations on sustainability, its principles and its implication on the residents' quality of life.
The 20th and 21st centuries have given birth to some of the largest cities in the world. Current statistics indicate that by 2030, 70% of the world population is likely to be concentrated in urban areas. The ever-increasing population is competing for the available space, resources, infrastructure and services. The supply of affordable housing, sanitation, food and healthcare services are all under pressure as a result of mass migration.
Malta is not a Megacity, but with 1,300 persons per square kilometre, the highest population density in Europe by far, the Island's challenges are comparable. Ironically, the population growth is expected to persist amid a growing economy which necessitates more foreign workers. As a result, the Island is under constant pressure to present itself as a more desirable place to live and work, competing to attract the best talent and investments.
Building new infrastructure should not be the answer to everything – cities and countries around the world are investing in Smart Cities solutions and Internet of Things technologies to improve their communities. A Smart City is an urban ecosystem that emphasises the use of digital technology, shared knowledge and cohesive processes to underpin residents' benefits in mobility, public safety, health and productivity.
The Association's Vision is focused on providing solutions for localities, residents and businesses. Information and communication technologies are critical enablers of more efficient, effective and responsive local governance. It is a human-centric vision of smart localities based on co-creation with its residents to improve the quality of life and generate prosperity—a desire to create a better, more livable, prosperous and sustainable nation.
In practice, the Association, in partnership with competent agencies and government authorities, will address traffic congestions by making use of intelligent traffic and parking systems alongside policies to reduce motor vehicle dependency. The document will encourage Open Data Platform enabling residents to choose the fastest routes and the most efficient modes of mobility according to the destination, day and time.
We will seek to introduce machine learning-enabled software to improve public safety and timely enforcement. We will also promote better overall well-being by adding preventive health apps and reduce the number of physician visits. Finally, we will improve productivity by digitalising the councils' services and simplifying processes of resident-administration interaction.
The framework of this Vision builds upon the Association’s four pillars, as explained above. It strives to give residents free time, a scarce commodity in today’s world, yet important for the individual’s ability to reduce stress, maintain happiness and health.
We want to give priority to residents and to better their quality of life. After all, if a council cannot manage to better its locality, we can never expect residents to have faith and respect towards their administrations.
Broadly speaking, what will Malta look like by the end of this period?
The COVID-19 pandemic forced us to postpone certain initiatives related to this vision, however, hopefully, things will be back to normal as of September. In the meantime, we have done some preparatory work and made contacts with stakeholders to explain the objectives of our vision in more details.
What are the next steps to recovery?
Malta seems to have recovered well from the pandemic. Until the end of July, we only had 4 active cases. Unfortunately, this rose to 99 cases after a boat full of 95 migrants entered our ports. 65 of them tested positive and another 29 the day after.
Being in the middle of the Mediterranean, Malta has always been left alone together with Italy to tackle this problem. So, if we did not have these migrants, we could have easily said that Malta was almost fully recovered from the pandemic.
The Local Council’s Association (LCA) was established in November 1994 to protect and promote the common interests of all the local councils in Malta and to represent them nationally and internationally. Its members are 68 Local Councils and 5 Regional Councils from the islands of Malta and Gozo.
Together, LCA represents some 1000 democratically elected members, Executive Secretaries and other employees. The Association works to promote a united vision that is based on local and regional self-government and democracy.
The Local Councils Association's role is to offer a shared vision for an improved quality of life of residents in their localities, set quality standards for administration, service and good governance and facilitate communication with all stakeholders.
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