The last bastion

We need to remove at once those policies that are causing irreversible harm that have changed the look of our country. We need to address the issue of over-dependence on the construction industry

The architecture became more horrendous and less sensitive to surroundings. Townscapes changed, landscapes ruined forever
The architecture became more horrendous and less sensitive to surroundings. Townscapes changed, landscapes ruined forever

When the spring season strikes the Maltese islands, there is an unimaginable attractiveness that makes you want to be in the Maltese countryside, next to some 1,000 different flowering plants, converting this Mediterranean island into a garden of Eden. It is then that you realise how beautiful Malta and Gozo are and what we have done to raze these Islands to the ground.

This is not hyperbole. You really have to go back and see that this is not the first time we have expressed so much frustration about the general abandonment besieging Malta. Our concerns are not new, indeed there is an eerie resemblance to the misgivings of the past.

I was reading the book of Eric Brockman, Last Bastion, Sketches of the Maltese Islands. In 1961 over 55 years ago, Brockman lamented about the changing face of the Maltese islands. That was before the boom of the late 1960s that saw so many pristine valleys eaten up by rich expats and Maltese with their villas. 

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Nationalist and Labour politics introduced the idea of tearing through village centres with new roads. Churches otherwise hidden behind narrow roads were opened to traffic. Naxxar, Zurrieq and so many other villages were ripped apart.

Then came the 1970s with the desecration of Bugibba and Marsalforn and Xlendi, and more significantly the transformation of Sliema.

Mintoff’s years brought about the home ownership scheme and the building development areas, which meant giving out plots of land for a pittance, and it created two things. It used up vital land but kick-started the new middle class who could now boast of owning an asset, and hypothecate their home for new ventures. This was now a new Maltese-speaking middle class that was lifted up to partake in the new age of consumerism.

Those years also saw the construction of roads systems without any respect for ecology or agriculture. It opened the chance for savage development which eradicated history and culture. Roads passed through historical bastions and idyllic sites.

And the 1980s became synonymous with corruption, linked to Lorry Sant and his cronies. It was ugly and violent. Just horrible. It was this that led me to stand up and be counted and involve myself in the first environmental movement. Things could not get worse, with the first environmental protest we held being met with beatings from well-known canvassers close to Lorry Sant. It led to a schism then in Labour with some taking a stand and suffering for it.

Nonetheless when the political campaigning did finally arrive before the May election in 1987, I felt more inclined helping out a new fledgling political party (Partit Demokratika Malti) led by Lino Brigulio and Michael Vella (fathers to Michael Brigulio and Daphne Caruana Galizia respectively). The end-result was a resounding failure. Both men lacked the charisma to bring a third party into parliament, and us, the PDM’s few followers, little gravitas to bring about change. But at least they stood for election, and did not accept to be taken up by another party.

I had good reason not to embrace the Nationalists: the first years of the PN administration turned into a new inferno, with an economic boom that took the construction industry to new heights. There was no planning and no thinking too. In 1989, it was high time to go political and the Green Party was launched. Unfortunately they suffered from the serious handicap of small parties and our unfair electoral system. 

It took years before a Structure Plan was finalised and a Planning Authority became functional. Local plans allowed for vast extensions of building zones, new villa complexes, new hotels, new schools in pristine areas and new industrial development. High-end development such as Busietta Gardens and numerous hotels continue to mar what was once unforgettable countryside and shoreline. Hamlets disappeared: Bahrija turned into a small town and new roads offered new development possibilities, Towns merged together, with Lija, Balzan and Attard becoming one, Mgarr and Zebbieh too, and Mosta and Naxxar seamlessly connected by more development.

Worst of all, the architecture became more horrendous and less sensitive to surroundings. Townscapes changed, landscapes ruined forever. Massive development led to a crisis in water supplies, a contaminated water table, and over-dependence on the expensive reverse osmosis.

The other crisis that exacerbated the situation was the decision to have two power plants, with a new Nationalist administration using the more traditional fossil fuels that left their toll on air quality. Wealth and prosperity led to a traffic problem that has now reached astronomical proportions. The quality of our health and life became compromised.

2006 translated into one of the worst changes in local plans masterminded by George Pullicino, leading to more land use and expansive building. Significantly the change in height limitations and elimination of more ODZ areas brought about more construction, and again allegations of favouritism in gifting out land parcels were rife but never proven.

The last years of the Gonzi administration led to the readjustment of some planning policies, but this opportunity was quickly pounced on by the Labour electoral campaign – and it paid dividends. Today, there is little doubt that the new planning policies have changed the face of rural development, increased height limitations to the glee of the mega-developers with Labour’s pro-development approach.

We are on the verge of an implosion.

With the exception of some contractors and the privileged few, the vast majority of Maltese agree that we have gone far too far. That beyond the need to be prosperous, we desperately need to seek a balance and say stop to this crazy development.

We desperately need to preserve our agricultural land, our valleys and foreshore and our townscapes. We need to remove at once those policies that are causing irreversible harm that have changed the look of our country. We need to address the issue of over-dependence on the construction industry. We need to get our banking systems to devise incentives that encourage people to save once again, and not to only see property as their savings bank.

We need to discuss the issue of taxing second-home property ownership, so anathema to all our inward looking politicians. And we need to give a value to preserving land and landscape. 

We need to do this if we care about future generations. And we need a political class that think of the future. Skyscrapers can be on the agenda, but not without consideration for the environs and the community, its townscape, the increased traffic and the impact on utilities.

We need not sacrifice everything. We should preserve gardens in our towns, the small patches of fields that hang on around our towns, the pedestrian areas, the open areas where children hang out. We need to think of the quality of our air, water and fresh food. We need to understand that many of our stresses, our illnesses are a reflection of where we live.

Most of all we need politicians who recognise that a country is not made of statistics and bulging bank accounts, dull suits, glitzy apartments, eye-catching boats and flashy cars. A country is a nation, whose citizens can find public spaces and see how their identity is tied to their own natural environs.

That does not come about with a concrete jungle. Malta fortunately has a soul and a heart not like the emptiness of skin-deep Dubai. Malta has a rich history and cultural heritage with traditions and habits. We should not attempt to be what we are not.

It is time to come together to form a coalition of like-minded people of all hues and creeds – and communicate to the unelected and elected representatives that environmental matters count, and that this will cost them votes.

This is our last bastion, and I am afraid to say our last fight.

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