Hubris: Labour’s downfall

All of which raises a question that cannot be ignored forever. Why is Labour intent on ignoring the common citizen’s voice?

In 2019, Moviment Graffitti organised a national protest against “excessive and haphazard construction” under the rallying cry, ‘Iż-żejjed kollu żejjed’ (‘Enough is enough’). It was one of the largest environmental manifestations after the successful 2015 protest against the proposed AuM campus at Żonqor Point.

Before that, even larger crowds had gathered to protest against the 2005-6 ‘rationalisation’ of the development boundaries: this time under a Nationalist administration led by Lawrence Gonzi.

On both those occasions, it was rightly argued that government could not afford to ignore such widespread anger and disgruntlement; least of all, when the underlying concern – environmental degradation – was so clearly justified.

Today, however, there are other reasons why government can ill-afford to forge ahead with its plans, even in the face of popular resistance. In recent years, we have tasted the bitter fruit of successive government’s failure to give the environment the protection it deserves. And at least one person – Miriam Pace, whose Santa Venera home collapsed in a construction accident – has even paid for this mistake with her life.

Briefly put, there is now also a widespread (and, alas, fully justified) perception that people are living in fear inside their own homes; and that the situation is being tolerated – if not actively encouraged – in the name of ‘economic growth’.

This kowtowing to the construction industry has long been felt to be unacceptable: economic growth cannot take precedence over people’s right to live in safety; it cannot ride roughshod over people’s genuine concerns about their environment, their health and their quality of life.

It would be a mistake, then, for government to dismiss, or minimise, this growing environmentalist angst. Last week, Graffitti was again leading residents in Marsaskala who are outraged at plans for a yacht marina that would denude the seaside village entirely of its charm.

As this newspaper noted, there is now discontent even within Labour circles, because it illustrates a growing chasm that has now visibly opened up between the ‘Labour Party in government’ – which concerns itself with the macro-view; and therefore may sometimes lose sight of the realities on the ground – and the grassroots Labour movement from which it was born.

Today, it is clear that apart from Labour’s disastrous planning policies – which allowed the proliferation of fuel stations outside development zones, and further incursions into rural areas – the degeneration of our towns and villages is rooted in an accumulation of different policies approved in the past 20 years, with the sole aim of changing goal-posts in favour of developers.

Government claims that any restriction of development rights, enshrined in the local plans, would result in massive compensation claims by owners. It is a claim that is born out of Labour’s convenience in maintaining a vote-winning status quo.

European legal experts will counter that such compensation claims do not exist. And despite its supposedly newfound green credentials (the PN now has its own ‘Greens’ think-tank, as this week’s press conference attempted to show…) the Nationalist opposition is committed not to take away any development rights enshrined in local plans, ensuring that any PN victory would leave the status quo intact.

Those who think the PN’s centrist greenwash can win the day for the Opposition, are clearly mistaken. The PN’s credibility as an alternative government can only be proven by a visionary and radical take on Maltese politics. To stay in a comfortable centre, that is dominated by Labour’s power of incumbency, means the PN is just waiting for Labour’s star to fall.

But what do the people really want, in this great challenge facing Malta today: i.e., the question of land use? Certainly, it has to be fairness: strong regulations, effective enforcement, a planning process that safeguards the quality of life… but also a level playing field, that is not unfairly tilted to the advantage of development.

There is no question that the local plans guiding development today are anything but that. The local plans, strategically, were also guided by the interests of large landowners and party donors.

This newspaper is a believer in the need for greater democratisation in planning: indeed, to have not just six regional local plans, as is the case today, but detailed plans for each of Malta’s 68 localities, with new local plans delineating new open spaces and enclaves in each locality.

Such plans should be designed with involvement of local councils; citizens assembled in physical and virtual town hall meetings; committees of village elders, focus groups of randomly selected citizens, locality stakeholders and NGOs. 

In the meantime, Labour should heed the warning signs from history and the political hegemonies that dominated it: otherwise, hubris will be its downfall.

Under the centre-left dominance of Labour, more public land seems to be going into private hands. Public walkways and parking spaces are being turned over to restaurants, whose turnover doubles with new space taken from the public; public land is dished out almost for free to mega-investors; more public space is sacrificed in the name of ‘schemed’ roads; or dubious marinas, which again serve only as ancillary revenue-generating vehicles for ulterior interests.

All of which raises a question that cannot be ignored forever. Why is Labour intent on ignoring the common citizen’s voice?