A lesson in how not to make or communicate policy

A lesson in how not to make or communicate policy
Examining the lessons learned from Mosta’s ficus relocation fiasco and the critical need for inclusive policy-making
Ficus trees near Mosta Square on Monday after their canopies were trimmed. Photo: Chris Sant Fournier – Source Times of Malta

12 ficus trees located next to the Mosta Rotunda have been stripped of their canopies. The Mosta local council had unanimously agreed to uproot and relocate the trees and relocate them to the Santa Margherita area. Only for the decision to be overturned after a massive public outcry.

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Having graced the Mosta square for over 50 years, these ficus trees were planted during a time when the location and type of tree planted as part of public landscaping works was more arbitrary. Ficus trees were often planted in urban areas without a thorough assessment of their suitability, leading to various issues.

The reasons why these species might not be suitable for certain local environments include:

Aggressive Root Systems: Ficus trees are known for their vigorous and expansive root systems. In urban settings, these roots can damage pavements, underground utilities, and building foundations. This can lead to costly repairs and maintenance challenges.

Size and Space Requirements: Ficus trees can grow quite large, making them unsuitable for confined urban spaces. Their size can lead to overcrowding, obstruct pedestrian pathways, and interfere with overhead utility lines.

BirdLife Malta said the Mosta local council uprooted the trees with the blessing of the Environment and Resources Authority. Photo: Chris Sant Fournier – Source Times of Malta

The Mosta Local Council’s Perspective

The decision by the local council and ERA to relocate the trees likely stemmed from their intent to capitalize on the plaza refurbishment. By doing so, they aimed to preempt the potential challenges posed by the trees’ extensive root systems and the associated infrastructure management concerns.

The local council and the Environment and Resources Authority (ERA) faced a complex decision with the Mosta Rotunda trees. Their choice to proceed with the relocation likely arose from strategic considerations linked to the broader refurbishment of the plaza. This decision, while pragmatic in certain respects, aimed to address anticipated issues associated with the trees’ extensive root systems that could threaten urban infrastructure. These roots, if left unmanaged, could pose significant risks to sidewalks, piping, and even building foundations, leading to possible safety hazards and financial burdens due to repair and maintenance needs.

Furthermore, their decision can be seen as an attempt to manage the urban landscape proactively. Urban spaces are constantly evolving, and city planners often have to balance ecological stewardship with the practical demands of urban infrastructure. In this instance, the ERA and the council might have evaluated the long-term implications of keeping the ficus trees in place against the immediate and future benefits of the plaza’s redevelopment.

By choosing to relocate the trees, the Mosta local council possibly hoped to mitigate the direct impact on the physical urban environment and preemptively solve problems that could escalate over time.

However, the context a policy-maker needs to take note of is wider than that.

Some overlooked aspects of policy-making

Urban development is now increasingly scrutinized through the lens of environmental sustainability and community well-being. Thus, the backlash in a period with a critical demand for urban development that harmonizes structural planning with ecological preservation was predictable. This is especially true given the lack of consultation and poor communication the council showed in going forward with this project.

From an environmental standpoint, the removal of these trees is both saddening and concerning. These ficus trees have not only historical value but also play a crucial ecological role.

The trees in question had big foliage, serving as the only roosting site for White Wagtails (Zakak Abjad) outside of Valletta. Common Starlings (Sturnell) and Spanish Sparrows (Għasfur tal-Bejt) were also known to shelter in the foliage.

There is also a misalignment between government guidelines and this case. Ficus trees are a protected species when located in an urban setting if they are old enough. As a signatory to the Birds Directive of the EU, Malta is bound to conserve wild birds within their natural habitat. In urban settings, the protection of birds involves addressing additional challenges such as habitat loss and pollution.

What are the lessons learned from this situation?

The importance of public consultation

One of the critical aspects highlighted by this controversy is the need for proactive policy messaging and extensive public consultation. In future projects, increased local community involvement in the decision-making processes, while providing clear information, can help avoid backlash and foster a sense of shared responsibility between the authorities and the general public.

Communicate not by reacting after a backlash but by taking the initiative proactively

Effective communication in policymaking hinges on proactive engagement rather than reactive explanations. Policymakers should anticipate potential public concerns and explain the rationale behind decisions before backlash arises. By doing so, policymakers foster trust and understanding, paving the way for smoother implementation of initiatives and community-supported outcomes

Look for alternative solutions

While acknowledging the ficus tree’s unsuitability, policymakers could have pursued less contentious but equally meaningful alternatives like root management or redesigning the space to retain those trees and preserving their ecological benefits while also enhancing the urban landscape


Council silent as Mosta trees saga intensifies

Mayor Chris Grech breaks silence on the uprooting of Mosta’s Ficus trees, says council will take note of people’s wishes to keep the trees in their original location

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