- Indoor Olympic-size pool, natural turf football fields, major Marsa sports project in the pipeline
- Co-ordinated effort to bring training-camps, international competitions to Malta
- More visibility to University of Malta R&I projects
- Motor enthusiasts desire for track warranted but environmental consideration as important
- Volunteering in sports, voting age as key files in EU Council presidency
In an interview with MaltaProfile, Chris Agius, Malta’s junior Minister responsible for Youth, R&D and Sports delves into Government’s plans for infrastructural projects targeting team, aquatic and motor disciplines. He makes it clear that a balance between sport enthusiasts' aspirations and environemntal conservation needs to be struck. Touching upon Malta's European Council presidency he pinpoints volunteering in sports and voting age as two of the main areas of interest in relation to his portolio. Agius also makes the case for more visibility and clearer measuring of Malta’s R&D output.
What do you consider as the main achievements of this legislature in your portfolio?
In the youth sector, we opened new offices for our National Youth Agency alongside halls and offices to be used by youth clubs who have nowhere else to meet. We have started a new project where youth workers mix and mingle with groups of alienated youths in various areas of the country in order to assist them to make better use of their time. Another initiative is Youth.Inc which caters for youths who have decided not to continue in their academic studies. Through Youth.Inc about 150 youths every year enter a 36-month tutoring programme that prepares them for the job market.
When it comes to sports, we have major structural projects in the pipeline. The first project is an indoor Olympic size pool, which will be situated in the Cottonera Sports Complex. Works will start already this year. We are also looking at a major project in Marsa. Historically, the city had been a jewel and a hub for sports in Malta but it has been neglected for many years. We are in the process of implementing a major project that will satisfy the needs of many sporting disciplines. New indoor facilities in Santa Venera are also in the pipeline. A €2 million revamp project at the National which will be concluded in the coming weeks. Additionally, we have plans for the privatisation of the Marsa horse-racing track, for an expression of interest for a multi-track circuit and for a new national sports policy which is currently at consultation phase.
With regards to the final element within our portfolio, the R&I sector, I would like to highlight the work of the Malta Council for Science and Technology (MCST). It has recently inaugurated Malta’s first interactive science centre, a €26 million project which we have branded Esplora. Besides acting as a tourist attraction, we also hope that through this project more young people will choose science-related careers. Meanwhile, we are assisting Maltese groups, companies and academics in accessing funds for research and innovation.
Malta can do much more in the realm of research, development and innovation. How do you plan to achieve better results?
The state can do much more. At the same time, we must appreciate that we have global companies whose R&D departments are headquartered in Malta. These brands have invested substantially in R&D throughout the years; however, their contribution might not have been factored in the Malta R&D data, although it has still taken place on our soil. The official figure of 0.45% of GDP expenditure on R&D might therefore not fully reflect the reality; it also does not account for the input of the University of Malta.
We are doing more, we are tapping European funds, looking for alternative types of investments, new partners to reach our target of 2% R&D spend by 2020. I believe that investment will be bigger in R&D in the coming months and years.
DUAL ROLE: The new Esplora science centre (artistic impression in bottom photo) will act both as an interactive science centre and as a touristic destination especially for families with young children.
RIDT (Research, Innovation, Development Trust) is the University of Malta’s arm focusing on research. Can you tell us more about their work?
RIDT is doing a fine job but one must acknowledge that research isn’t something that gives results after months or a couple of years. It takes time. One must visit the labs and meet the teams to gauge the entity of what is being done. However, we need to work further on the visibility of these projects. For example, nobody knows that RIDT is focusing on epilepsy, and they are close to breakthroughs. Therefore, we are discussing with the university ways to make such landmark studies more visible. But in general I believe that the government should invest more in research including by providing more tax incentives and grants.
Let’s move on to the economic effect of sports, are you actively promoting this element, for example by attracting training camps and international sporting events to Malta?
Yes, I believe that sport and tourism must work hand in hand, and during the past couple of years we have succeeded in working very closely with the Ministry of Tourism always keeping in mind that our first aim is to satisfy the needs of the local sporting community. We have asked our clubs and associations to lobby to bring international competitions over, and through our support as well, Malta has succeeded in attracting a good number of international sporting activities.
We had the Kata Karate world championship, Judo competitions and billiard competitions. We even had a European’s Athletics competition, with teams coming to Malta in preparation for the Olympics. In 2015 we started a project with a foreign company to bring over top football teams for training camps. We are also planning for more natural-turf football pitches. The number of top football teams enquiring about Malta is on the increase, however, we only have a couple of such pitches. Nonetheless, 2017 will be very busy with top teams coming to Malta for training camps.
Once we have more top-class facilities, we will be able to bring over other top international competitions. For example, with an indoor national pool we can easily secure a top water polo and swimming competition, while a top athletic field would help us attracting training camps for North European countries.
We are also planning for more natural-turf football pitches
Another issue which has been on the news is the expression of the interest for the motor racing recreational and educational park. What kind of time frames are we looking at here?
In its election manifesto this Government said that we would study the possibility of having a motor car track in Malta. In fact, we have gone a step further; we haven’t only studied the possibility, as well as its pros and cons, but we also issued an expression of interest in relation to this project. We had five bidders, and we left it to the bidders to make a site selection, so everybody made his bid on a site, which they thought would be the best suited. We now have compiled studies along with our architects so that if eventually we issue a request for proposals, it would cause the least of problems.
Everybody knows Malta is small, and we care for the environment. If and when we move ahead with this project, we will definitely be doing this with great care to the environment. However, we also believe that the enthusiasts who have been dreaming of this facility for more than 50 years deserve such a facility, as long as it does not affect the environment.
MOTOR TRACK: Agius is adamant that the authorities need to find a balance between the legitimate aspirations of motor sports enthusiasts and environmental protection. (Photo credit: DOI)
Focusing on the EU Council presidency: what are the main dossiers that are being discussed under your portfolio?
PRIMA (Partnership for Research and Innovation in the Mediterranean Area) is of top priority. Then we have the streamlining of the R&I, monitoring and reporting landscape. The blue economy is also paramount for our tenure with the vision of creating more blue jobs in the Med region. We will also be working on the so-called ‘structured dialogues’ in order for youths to be more involved in the national decision-making process. Not to mention volunteering in sports which is one of the priorities of Malta’s presidency. The Maltese Government has already registered a major breakthrough by giving 16-year-olds the possibility to vote in local council elections. Following this, the government has also started a consultation process on the possibility of extending this right to national elections. I think this would be the first such case in Europe.
Government is also considering extending 16-year-olds right to vote to national elections. This would be a first in Europe
What are the projects that you want to finalise by the end of the legislature?
We look forward to finalising the national indoor pool project, which is very important for those who have aquatic sports at heart, and transforming the Marsa facilities. Many people will remember Marsa as the most important area for sports, and my dream is to see it as a hub for different sporting disciplines again. I look forward also to seeing our horse racetrack transformed into the best racetrack in the Mediterranean basin. I think we have what it takes to transform it, we only need the expert involvement of people coming from the sector. Finally, why not, the conclusion or the issue of the request for proposals for the construction of the educational and recreational motor park which will eventually be able to even host international racing competitions.