Sociologist, local councillor, activist, drummer from Malta

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

From Stuttgart to Sliema

The Times Wednesday, 6th May 2009

Michael Briguglio

A few days ago I had the opportunity to participate in the 4th European Green local councillors meeting, which was held in the German city of Stuttgart. Entitled Green New Deal for Greener Cities, the meeting discussed the challenge being posed by climate change for local policies.

I was impressed by the successes being made in various European cities and towns which have a Green presence in their local councils.

To give one example of such successes, Imma Mayol, the Green deputy mayor of Barcelona, was impressive in showing how this Mediterranean city is coping with the global economic and ecological crises.

She explained how unlike other parts of Spain which have become overdependent on the construction industry and which are facing deep economic problems, Barcelona gives priority to economic diversification, strong social policies and public investment in sustainable infrastructure and facilities. Social policies are focusing on inclusion, whereby, for example, public housing is being targeted towards vulnerable groups whilst being characterised by energy efficiency. Barcelona is promoting economic sectors such as services, tourism and industry within the ambit of the knowledge and environmental economy. The result is that thousands of jobs are being created in areas such as IT, energy, media and medical technology.

Ms Mayol added that thousands of jobs are being created in the wind and solar energy sectors, and in 85 per cent of cases these have very good conditions and indefinite contracts. A lesson to learn for Mediterranean island Malta? Ms Mayol also explained how Barcelona is now aiming to pedestrianise its main avenue as an example of urban renewal.

Another example of green council successes is that of German "eco-city" Freiburg. Apart from having an extensive pedestrian zone, the city only permits construction of energy-efficient buildings on municipal land, and all new buildings must comply with energy specifications.

Another German "green" city, Muehlacker, has already reached its emissions-reduction target for the year 2030! The Green council invests heavily in gas buses, railways, energy efficiency in public buildings and so forth. Similar examples are also found in other countries such as Finland, with one particular green city reaching the 91 per cent renewable energy rate.

Many other examples were given of green successes in cities and towns, resulting not only in ecological improvements, efficient and universally accessible public services, and better quality of life for residents, but also an expansion of job opportunities and stronger public participation, in line with the concept of the Green New Deal.

During the conference, it was emphasised that greener cities require strong public services. There are various examples of cities across the EU which have privatised too many public services (or formed public-private partnerships). In various cases this has resulted in costlier services, less accountability and inferior working conditions.

Jean Lambert, British Green MEP, explained how this took place in the British health and public transport sectors. In the case of the latter, non-profitable routes have simply been removed. To the contrary, cities like London, which have Green councillors, prioritise public transport. Besides, the use of bicycles is being promoted through extensive use of bicycle lanes.

Mr Lambert also explained how the economic crisis brought havoc to various banks which lend money to such private companies, resulting in bail-outs from the State, only bringing about further pressure on taxpayers, when various services could easily have been provided by the public service!

As Sliema local councillor, I learned a lot from this conference. To begin with, I definitely agree that in many instances, local councils are paying a costly price for private services which leave much to desire. The wardens system is a case in point. I also agree that public consultation and participation makes local councils more aware of residents' needs - and Sliema council is on the right track in this regard.

It is also clear that there is a clear link between ecological, social and economic dimensions. Usage of public transport and efficient energy are two cases in point. In this regard I am proud to say that as regards the former, Sliema has its own free service. As regards the latter, the council has applied for funding, which will hopefully result in usage of solar energy for the council premises. Besides, Sliema council is also carrying out other energy-saving measures, which will ultimately result in less pressure on the council's finances. In all cases, such ecological and social policies ultimately result in employment opportunities.

To go back to the Stuttgart conference, a memorable quote came from Green deputy mayor of Helsinki Pekka Sauri. Borrowing a line from contemporary social theorist Jurgen Habermas, he said that Greens have "the force of the better argument". Indeed, Greens are not held hostage by economic interests which benefit from the unsustainable status-quo, and our approach frequently results in consensual decisions in local councils. In itself this is already a step forward for local politics.

Mr Briguglio, a sociologist, is a Sliema local councillor for Alternattiva Demokratika - The Green Party.

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