Building our way to hell

Despite an attempted greenwash it remains a fact that both main parties are in bed with the construction industry and big businesses

11 April 2017, 9:55am
Malta is once again due for a revision to the development boundaries; there is no stipulated cut-off point to this endless exercise, and therefore no possible lasting guarantee that some areas will be protected
Malta is once again due for a revision to the development boundaries; there is no stipulated cut-off point to this endless exercise, and therefore no possible lasting guarantee that some areas will be protected
That Malta is changing at a fast pace is perhaps too self-evident to mention. The island is already very different to what it was 20 years ago... or even just 10 years ago. But the cost of this transformation is something we discuss too little. There is a tendency to use the word ‘progress’ and ‘progressive’ only in a positive sense; the negative aspects of the far-reaching social changes are all too often swept under the carpet.

For all the material and economic advances we have made in recent years, Malta has progressed very little in terms of governance and infrastructural planning. We have upped our game when it comes to economic growth performance as a whole; but the truth is that the development that has fuelled this growth is still severely under-regulated. Worse, the economic progress has been offset by pervasive and often irreparable damage to the environment and residents’ quality of life.

On a superficial level, the lack of adequate planning structures has left the entire country in the state of one big construction site – getting bigger with each year - with new buildings constantly eating up the little public space at our disposal. There is simply too much ongoing construction going on at the same time, with too little in the way of co-ordination between the different projects.

Life in urban zones has experienced a constant, uninterrupted upheaval for decades now. Roads consistently closed due to the presence of cranes, with all the associated traffic and inconvenience; noise and dust pollution constantly on the increase, and areas of natural beauty constantly shrinking or disappearing altogether.

And there seems to be no end in sight. Malta is once again due for a revision to the development boundaries; there is no stipulated cut-off point to this endless exercise, and therefore no possible lasting guarantee that some areas will be protected. At this rate, it is painfully clear that within a few decades, every square inch of the island will have been built up. 

Then as now, politicians will defend the policy on the grounds of its economic dividends. There must come a point, however, when we question the cost in human terms.

On such a small island, land use should be the single most crucial issue, to be handled with the utmost care. As things stand, it is rarely even discussed, let alone given importance, by the political class.

Land provides the context for the country’s biodiversity, and also for human economic activity. Ideally these two considerations should be balanced, but it very rarely is. Our limited land availability therefore often results in conflicts between nature and competing human activities. Due to Malta’s size, population density and biodiversity, decisions relating to land-use change are often highly contested. 

In other, larger countries, this issue is of less immediate concern... yet there is often more awareness in such countries than there is in Malta today. 

But there is more to the issue than ecology (however important that aspect may be). The recent economic boom has seen more foreigners moving to Malta for jobs in diverse industries; from high paying jobs in financial services and betting companies, to lower income jobs in the catering, health and hospitality sectors. 

In itself this is no bad thing. Undoubtedly most people are better off than they were 20 years ago, with growing consumption a direct result of more disposable income.

But the same factors have also resulted in a greater demand for accommodation which in turn is fuelling construction boom and other knock on effects. There is a greater demand for services, entertainment, transport... all placing further strain on our already stretched infrastructure.  

Leaving aside doubts which may exist on the sustainability of the financial services, iGaming etc, the growing demand is impacting our quality of life.  More cars on the road means that a car trip that took 15 minutes some years ago can now take an hour or two. Going out for a walk in the countryside is no longer easy as more people are competing to enjoy the shrinking open spaces, giving rise to conflicting uses of space.

The influx of foreigners has also driven property and rent prices up. Generally rent is easier to control with rent caps than housing prices; but so far there is no political will to control the market.

This can only lead to the gentrification of Malta. The social and cultural wellbeing of local life will become further and further sidelined, in the interest of turning Malta into little more than a hop-on, hop-off platform for highly paid visitors who may spend money in Malta but give back very little else.

Despite an attempted greenwash – whereby all parties now claim to hold the environment to heart – it remains a fact that both main parties are in bed with the construction industry and big businesses. They will always take their side when in doubt. This comes at the expense of citizens, denied the protection of planning authorities too spineless to uphold the rules.

There is a cost to everything, and the cost of our economic success is growing inequality, and deteriorating quality of life.