Sustainability: Beyond the buzzword

As a relatively young nation, we’re facing challenges that will take us to the next level in terms of development and growth

‘My definition of a good society includes economic prosperity along with a good quality of life, social justice, clean air and a liveable environment’
‘My definition of a good society includes economic prosperity along with a good quality of life, social justice, clean air and a liveable environment’

When the financial markets crashed in the United States in 2008, a lot of people rushed into judgement on who was to blame. Everyone seemed to be guilty of something. A huge chunk of the blame was directed on the bankers, and you can’t begrudge people for doing that. Bankers were greedy and were not seeing the big picture when they were trying to sell anything that had a heartbeat (or didn’t) for a premium. However it would be short-sighted to just lay it on the banks. 

Some people in business operate on a religiously-devoted profit mantra. Greed is good, they will say. However, in the financial crisis I think the biggest let-down were the regulators – the ones who had to monitor the banks and the rating agencies. This is because ultimately investment banks operate in an environment and they follow the rules. The problem, in this case, was lax regulation because the law was not being broken.

It is up to the regulators to create a sealed checks-and-balances framework to operate in a fair and holistic manner. The investors who lost their pensions in the crash, innocent victims of the financial dictionary, were badly let down by officials who had no idea what they were doing. The reason, in part, has also to do with resources. In the US, investment banks offer multi-million dollar salaries to freshly graduated college students from MIT, Harvard and Stanford. The best mathematicians of the world, unfortunately, end up on Wall Street. On the other side you have the American public sector, with its limited resources and budgets, which was trying to regulate (sometimes just trying to understand) complex financial mechanisms that are inherently designed to not be understood.

Last week I spoke about the urbanisation challenges in Malta. The country is experiencing huge changes and I think we have to be very proud that our economy is doing so well. The prophets of doom aren’t thrilled but I think even they have to admit that Malta is doing great. However this doesn’t mean positive economic results should, in any way, translate into a poorer lifestyle for people. This is why our institutions need to be stronger than ever – to make sure that our development, resulting from our economic success, is done in a proper manner moving forward. Two things need to happen – stronger legislation in favour of sustainable development and, during the implementation phase, an improved checks-and-balances system to make sure the framework provides a fair game for private enterprise and safeguards in place for the public. A good system doesn’t rely on the good faith of for-profit enterprise, but on accountability and procedure.

A lot has been written in the past days on the Townsquare project in Sliema, and some of it strengthens this point. For example, noise pollution and increase in vehicle emissions were thoroughly acknowledged by the developers in impact assessments to be a “major” concern. But that’s all they did – they ticked a box by acknowledging it but offered nothing in terms of how they are going to mitigate it. That’s just not good enough.

The same with parking. The project has over 33,000m² in apartments, almost 5,000m² in often densely-used office space and more than 8,000m² in retail and restaurants space – and all this should be catered for with 773 parking spaces. The fact that “retail” and “F&B”, meaning restaurants and bars, are classified together when they bring vastly different traffic intensity, is an example of the clever generic use of language in such procedures. The process is being done and the law is being followed, but the analytical depth of the established process leaves a lot to be desired.

It is easy and simplistic to blame private enterprise coming up with mega-projects for these issues, but I’d rather see the big picture. People whose job is to make a profit will try and do so, with the minimum of regulations required.

In theory, going up and not sideways makes plenty of sense. The strategy is definitely sound. However, in my view, the tactics need to be improved on different fronts: holistically, at procedural level and ultimately through implementation. This is very much a political matter – laws need to change to make sure regulation and safeguards are improved.

As I wrote last week, there were other countries which have been in our situation, such as Singapore, and they’ve done a brilliant job at growing in a sustainable way. We’re going through this phase now and it is crucial that we do this right as the price to pay for unsustainable, unplanned or unviable development is too high. Too high both on the economic side and on the environment.

Over the years we have allowed our island to be taken over by buildings and cars, and the people have often come last. We need to reverse this and start putting people first. Social spaces, plants and trees are what make Malta liveable. It’s very rich for big contractors to create years of intense construction and negatively affecting hundreds of people, while they enjoy the peace and quiet of villas in tranquil areas.

My definition of a good society includes economic prosperity along with a good quality of life, social justice, clean air and a liveable environment.

The fixation on a particular project will come and go, but real progress and change will only happen once we address the structural issues of the regulatory and policy framework in property development. Even there, laws alone are not the absolute guarantee of success – public administrators need to match their abilities with private enterprise in order to safeguard the public’s interest. Both sides need to be strong enough to be able to pull in their direction so that a balance is found.

As a relatively young nation, we’re facing challenges that will take us to the next level in terms of development and growth, and that is very positive. It is up to us, politicians, and stakeholders to make sure we’ve got the right tools and ideas that will help take the country forward and to be proud of what our children will ultimately inherit.

Evarist Bartolo is Minister of Education and Employment

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