Not quite Dubai, but almost

Comparisons are inevitable, and Muscat’s choice will surely have struck a slightly dissonant chord.

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat recently raised a few eyebrows by citing Dubai and Singapore as role models for his own vision of a future Malta.

One would like to think his choice was not based on admiration for those city-states’ political or economic systems, and even less for their standards of social welfare and equality. The United Arab Emirates is defined as a “federal, presidential, absolute monarchy”, and its affluence conceals a widely known issue concerning cheap labour imported from foreign countries (mostly India).

Singapore is a parliamentary democracy, but human rights agencies have criticised its poor human rights record and shed doubt on its democratic credentials.

On other issues, however, one can also understand the intended comparison. It was Dubai that Muscat clearly had in mind with his ‘artificial island’ proposal during the last election: and if Singapore’s example is to be emulated, it would be in the country’s extraordinary success with education (in which field it is a leading global model).

But comparisons are inevitable, and Muscat’s choice will surely have struck a slightly dissonant chord. Already there is substantial evidence that Malta’s own economy is being built on the back of a largely clandestine, and in many cases underpaid, migrant labour force.

And in its haste to kick-start the motor of the economy through construction projects – exactly as the Nationalist government had always done in its way – the Labour administration appears hell-bent on repeating many of the same mistakes made by its predecessor.

Labour’s vision for Malta is in fact turning out to have as much of a bulldozer effect on the environment as the administration which had been criticised by so many (ironically, including the Labour opposition) in 2005. Many of the objections originally levelled at the Gonzi government involved the extension of the outside development zones to permit building in protected areas.

They are all equally applicable to the incoming Labour administration’s efforts, which in just a year and a half have arguably turned the environmental clock even farther back.

Again like the PN government, the problem is not so much the lack of expertise on which to build sound policies… but a knack of drawing up adequate policies and then simply ignoring them. Many of the issues the government is now in the process of ‘regulating’ – such as building height limitations – are in fact already regulated at law by a number of policy areas, including the local plans. Yet the government inevitably goes on to render these policies ineffective by proposing development projects that simply defy all their provisos.

The most recent example was the development brief for the White Rocks project, which ignored all the restrictions set by existing policy documents regarding development in environmentally sensitive areas. Effectively this means the call for tenders already issued is for a project that is technically illegal, and would – if there wasn’t such a glaring conflict of interest in the structure of the authority – have to be issued with an enforcement order by MEPA.

The same blueprint applies also to the Labour government’s earlier, hastily conceived policy for high-rise buildings. Clearly, some form of policy is needed to regulate this facet of the constuction sector: a simple glance at the Sliema/St Julian’s skyline will confirm that our approach to such things as building height restrictions has been erratic, self-contradictory and largely decided on a case-by-case basis.

But once again, the resulting policy – launched after the usual public consultation exercises – seems to have ignored all the advice it received. The same MEPA report which went on to sanction the new building height limit restrictions notes that “ill-designed tall buildings can erode local character… historic areas, and can create problems at street level affecting vitality and amenity and the microclimate. They can create transportation bottlenecks, especially in intensive commercial development, and social problems in high density, low-cost residential schemes…”

Yet the new policy excludes only Gozo from the possibility of high-rise, and could conceivably result in an increase to the skyline of 10 storeys across Malta. Technically no such development will be permitted in ‘urban conservation zones’; but given the size of these areas relative to the areas that have been included in the scheme – and above all the disregard for protecting buffer-zones in such areas, which resulted in Valletta already overshadowed by high-rise development at Tigne – the effect of this restriction is unworkable in practice.

Moreover, MEPA has seemingly reserved the right to decide on a case-by-case basis – an inevitability, when one considers that the same authority has already approved high-rise development in both Gzira and St Paul’s Bay long before this policy was issued. MEPA’s policy document now describes the restrictions and thresholds for eligibility to high-rise development as “tools to achieve a wider objective”. According to MEPA, these tools “should never be used stringently in all circumstances”; whenever the end product will improve the urban environment “slight departures from thresholds” will be allowed.

The only difference between the present government and its predecessor, is that with his nine-seat majority in parliament the Prime Minister evidently feels he can steamroll over a helpless electorate at will. If so, it may prove a costly gamble in the long term.

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