A turning point for those who demand change

We need the idealism of youth. We need people who are able to say 'no' and who want to make this country better.

To the onlookers and bystanders, yesterday’s protest may go down as yet another protest for the environment.

And yet… it was one that managed to bring together the largest number of groups, big and small, organised and disorganised, young and new, all of them connected by the same dedication to the community they serve.

In 1985, the first time such a protest took place, around 13 groups – including political ones – took to the street. They were greeted by the thugs of Labour’s public works ministers Lorry Sant, who treated demonstrators to beatings with chains, kicks and punches. The police watched as we were repeatedly bruised and hurt.

But as one of the first environmental protests, it managed to stall the building development zone areas (BDA), pockets of construction created outside of villages and town centres inside pristine countryside to create new homes for the budding new middle class.

In 1985 there was no Structure Plan but a planning board run by one of Sant’s cronies, who would later be implicated in corruption probes on his political master. That was over 30 years ago – and fast-forward, a similar group albeit way much bigger is now asking for changes to planning policies. And it comes at a time when generally there is a feeling that we have gone too far.

In 1985, I recall that there were two young MPs who lent support for the demands of the loosely-named grouping known as Zghazagh ghall-Ambjent. They were Nationalist MPs Noel Buttigieg Scicluna and Michael Falzon. I remember meeting them and they hinted at the need of a Structure Plan. Falzon would later be responsible for the creation of that Structure Plan under a Nationalist administration that would serve as the legal structure and basis for town planning in Malta.

Yet no one can deny that Lorry Sant’s appalling planning policies led to numerous semi-detached hamlets, with those footprints sold for a pittance against subsidized bank loans to build the houses that made the Maltese middle class asset-rich. Home ownership was the key to class eradication.

There were many flaws in the policies of the new Structure Plan in 1992 but in general it introduced a sense of normality and an appreciation of rules, development zones and non-development zones, urban conservation areas and sites of scientific importance. 

It still did not stop ill thought-out development from taking place, but it minimised it. But post-1992 as the Structure Plan came into being, the economy boomed and people’s financial status went up more than a mere notch. What followed, many years later, was an attempt in 2004 to see that the planning laws were respected and abusers brought to the book. It boomeranged and people started pointing out that they found the Planning Authority sluggish and anti-economy. The answer to that was former PN minister George Pullicino’s extension of the building zones – specifically targeting people who wanted their land to be included in development zones.

It was a shameful reform allegedly organised from the Stamperija itself, and the effects of which are still being felt today, and will continue to be felt, given that much of this land has yet to be developed.

Labour today argues that it is doing nothing wrong and simply allowing development to take place within the confines of these zones. That is a feeble excuse. 

Nothing stops Labour from changing policies and imposing stricter rules for development, indeed righting the wrongs of Pullicino’s ‘rationalisation’ exercise.

Let’s face it: Muscat’s success has been his economic equation and unbridled neo-liberal policies, and his belief that planning laws need to be relaxed to unleash the tiger. The truth is that many benefitted from this economic boom and are willing to look the other way.  Destroyed landscapes, noise, dust, pollution and the rape of our cultural and natural heritage have not led to the national outrage that deserves to be screaming at the top its lungs.

And I only base this assumption on what happens at the polls.

When I interviewed Graffitti’s Andre Callus on Xtra this week, he said that MPs were not welcome to yesterday’s protest. Indeed, Saturday’s demonstration was far smaller than the Front Harsien ODZ protest of 2015, which was more of a threat to the government then because it was directly supported by the PN.

Despite the good will of this extra-parliamentary movement, no noble thought will change the fact that any real impact or success for any movement in Malta depends on its ability to transform protest into a vote at the general elections – no matter how much we like the PN or not. Any government, any political party will weigh and measure the effect of that protest and whether that will eventually translate into votes. That is the key to success of a protest movement.

So back to 1985, where budding politicians like Censu Galea, the young Beppe Fenech Adami and others, were in attendance. Many others would go into politics, like Wenzu Mintoff and Toni Abela. Their presence led to change for the simple reason that politicians at the top were worried about their electoral base. We were no wiser than we are today, and the claims and demands were specific – no to building development areas.

If yesterday’s ‘7 September’ movement wants its demands to gain traction, they must engage in well-researched and specific proposals.

And this country needs people who say ‘no’, people who stand up to be counted and who open our eyes.

We need the idealism of youth. We need to see people who want to make this country better.

But it cannot happen if we do not engage with those we might consider to be the enemy, even the grotesque face of business itself… they will not be going away any time sooner. They are here to stay.

Andre Callus can push movement in this direction, and he will achieve results and gain more respect. This is the turning point he needs to make.