How about not destroying any more of our own island first?

The stark truth, however, is that we live on island that has a multi-millennial tradition of building in stone... and in all those thousands of years, we’ve never managed to hit on any other long-term economic strategy

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all in favour of wacky ideas. The wackier the better, in fact. And I’ll even throw in a few extra bonus points, when those wacky ideas come from anyone remotely associated with Malta’s academic or ‘intellectual’ circuit.

Actually, make that any ideas at all. Because quite frankly, I’m not hearing any other particularly exciting brainwaves emanating from rest of the island’s so-called intelligentsia at the moment... are you? And it’s hardly surprising, either. I mean, just look what happened, when one, solitary maverick academic ‘did the unthinkable’ by... um... actually ‘thinking’ for a change. All hell broke loose. ‘What’s this? A Maltese academic, daring to propose radical, innovative solutions to real Maltese proposals? Hasn’t anyone ever told him that his job is to simply lock himself away in an ivory tower somewhere...?

But you know how it is. A little like Maltese football, really: you can never win. Hardly a day goes by without Maltese academia being (often unfairly) criticised on precisely the above lines – i.e., for ‘being cocooned from social realities’, or ‘failing to engage with contemporary, street-level issues’ – yet no sooner does one Maltese academic break the mould, by floating the (supremely wacky) proposal to overcome Malta’s geographical limitations by purchasing the Italy island of Pantallaria... than everyone tells him to shut up. Who needs sociologists to propose solutions to social problems, anyway?   We can always just carry on ignoring the problem until it goes away of its own accord. You know: by magic... the way all our problems eventually solve themselves, without any input from our end.

Malta was supposed to be drawing up a 'national master-plan for high-rise'

For let’s face it: it’s not as though all the more conventional ‘solutions’ to the same problems – overcrowding, lack of space, environmental degradation, etc. – have been what you could call ‘an overwhelming success’. And there have been past attempts to resolve population issues: mostly by exporting Maltese citizens, in bulk, as ‘cheap labour’.

To be fair, you can’t call those past efforts ‘failures’ either. Mass emigration did ease population issues in the 1930s and 1960s... and there are now thriving Maltese communities in Australia, Canada, USA and elsewhere as a result. You can buy ‘pastizzi’ in Melbourne, for instance. But it is, at best, a stop-gap measure... it doesn’t ‘solve’ the core problem of too many people scrambling to live in too small a space; it only postpones it a little longer.

The stark truth, however, is that we live on island that has a multi-millennial tradition of building in stone... and in all those thousands of years, we’ve never managed to hit on any other long-term economic strategy, apart from the one conceived by the temple builders some 7,000 years ago.

Build, build, build. The only things that have changed since then are: a) the quality of what we’re building (we have never once come close to matching our Neolithic forebears for sheer architectural prowess); b) the materials we build with (now mostly imported concrete); and c) the population of the Maltese islands, which has exploded from 200,000 after World War II, to almost half a million today.

Tentatively, I would also add a potential ‘d’. Throughout the centuries, our only solution to expanding urban population was to either build more towns and villages from scratch... or to allow existing towns to simply expand outwards in ribbons (as a rule, with nothing in the way of ‘open space’ designed into the newer urban sprawl).

Now, however, almost all Malta’s towns and villages have long run into each other, leaving no space to expand any further... other than by eating with gusto into what little remains of Malta’s natural landscape; or (the only other ‘idea’ we’ve ever hit upon) by building upwards instead of outwards.

This is what I meant earlier, when I said that none of the conventional approaches has ever worked. On paper, the last option sounds reasonable... if, naturally, any proper planning goes into all the necessary infrastructure, etc. But of course, we all know how it actually works in practice: Malta was supposed to be drawing up a ‘national master-plan for high-rise’; but we dished out permits for high-rise buildings before this plan was even discussed, let alone finalised and enacted. And while we were busy dishing out those high-rise permits, we also carried on with the usual business of dishing all the regular ones for more development (and more, and more, and MORE) even in supposedly ‘protected’ ODZ land.

So, if the idea was to build upwards instead of outwards.... well, it’s already dead in the water. Very predictably, we are building both upwards AND outwards... which, in practice, means that sooner or later both those options will naturally come to the end of their elastic. There is an obvious limit on outward development – the sea – and there are engineering limitations which put the brakes on that old expression, ‘the sky’s the limit’. (Cat Stevens wrote a song about it once: ‘Will we keep on building higher, till there’s no more room up there?’)

Meanwhile, all indications point towards a continuation of the population growth trend – boosted by immigration – and of course, no change in our approach to urban planning (unless you count changes to allow more, and more, and MORE development, etc). You don’t have to be a Thomas Malthus to realise that a point will one day be reached when there will quite simply be no space left to build, in any direction.... short of colonising Space, or...

And that, roughly, is the point when Prof. Godfrey Baldacchino stepped in to venture a radically different approach. If land shortage is the root cause of the problem, why not... um... buy new land? Apparently, there’s a lovely little Italian island that’s just sitting out there between Sicily and Tunisia... with hardly any development on it at all... just begging to be snapped up. So what are we waiting for? It’s a deal, it’s a steal, it’s the sale of the bloody century...

Erm... it’s also a little pie-in-the-sky, don’t you think? For one thing, I was unaware that Italy had put Pantallaria up for sale in the first place... but even if it did, how on earth would we be able to afford it?  Last I looked, our much-vaunted budget surplus stood at around 18 million euro. That’s not even enough to buy back the lease on Manoel Island... though it might buy you around half a dozen luxury apartments, with garages, somewhere like Midi or Portomaso...

We can always just carry on ignoring the problem until it goes away of its own accord

I’m no real estate expert, but I would estimate that an unspoilt Mediterranean island around twice the same of Gozo would sell for slightly more than 18 measly million. Oh, and then there’s the small matter of Pantallaria’s resident population, which currently numbers around 7,000. My hunch is that some of them might have a thing or two to say, about going to bed ‘Italian’... and unaccountably waking up ‘Maltese’ the next day. (It would certainly freak me out a little, if I awoke to discover, from one day to the next, that my country’s national anthem was ‘Il Canto Degli Italiani’... its government was composed of Lega Nord and Movimento Cinque Stelle... and that, worst of all, I would suddenly have to start siding with the Italian national football team in the European Cup. Aaargh...!)

Honestly, something tells me Prof. Baldacchino didn’t quite think this one through. The biggest drawback by far, however, is that even if we did somehow manage to con the Italians out of Pantallaria – hey, you never know: we’re supposed to be rather good at that sort of thing– well, all it would mean is that we’d just have another island to totally screw up with the same old primitive planning policies. And my personal hunch is that ‘buying Pantallaria’ would do nothing to stop us from screwing up all our other islands in the meantime. Oh, no. I reckon we’d just carry on tearing into the local countryside with bulldozers, while simultaneously carving up our latest acquisition so that the same process can start there, too.

But still: far be it from me to knock someone else for ‘having an idea’, at a time when nobody else in this country seems to even be thinking at all. In fact, I’ll go a step further, and propose an even wackier idea of my own – and trust me, this one’s completely (but COMPLETELY) nuts. Ready? Here goes... Oh wait, I’ve already said it. It’s in the headline...

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