More encroachment permits for tables and chairs in public places such as village squares, promenades and pavements were issued last year by the Lands Authority. However, the regulator would not say what enforcement action was taken to ensure such concessions are not being abused.  

The issuance of these permits is a very controversial matter as it is a frequent source of complaints about permit holders going beyond their allocated space and at times obstructing pavements and public spaces.  While licences allowing such practice generate economic activity, blocking access to pedestrians could put elderly people and parents with young children especially at risk.

It transpires that in 2020, the Authority issued 73 encroachment permits for tables and chairs, bringing the total number of concessions to a staggering 2,400. However, this figure includes encroachment permits for billboards. The report noted that revenue from the concessions of tables and chairs soared from €29,339 in 2019 to €115,988 in 2020 while in the case of permits for one-off events the rise was from €67,238 to €428,226.

According to the Authority encroachment permits are issued in a two-stepped approach whereby the applicant must first have a development permit in hand. Moreover, the concession has to be renewed annually. As for enforcement, the annual report states that this is “a critical yet delicate function” which is primarily concerned with “ensuring that abuse on public land is inspected, investigated and any resultant abuse is acted upon”. Yet, the report makes no mention whatsoever on the efforts made to ensure that holders of encroachment permits for tables and chairs do not flout the conditions.

Questions sent by Voice of the Workers Weekly to the Authority’s CEO on the number of inspections carried out and the action taken when breaches were found since, were not answered by the time of writing.

Though in the last decade there was a sharp increase in encroachment permits issues of enforcement have been present long before. In 2013 an investigation by the Environment Commissioner within the Ombudsman Office had concluded that the system to bring catering establishments abusing their encroachment permits in line was “fragmented, unwieldy, and incapable of providing an immediate and effective response to complaints”. This is due to the fact that several players are involved including the police, the Lands Authority and the Malta Tourism Authority.

At the time the Environment Commissioner had suggested demarcating encroachment areas with metal marks on the ground, and the issuance of onsite fines by wardens or the police. However, the Commissioner has insisted that having a single entity coordinating enforcement was crucial.

In his investigation the commissioner had noted that the defunct Government Property Division, which is nowadays the Lands Authority, had not been forthcoming and had failed to answer his questions. Eight years down the line, it seems that very little has changed.