The thin red lines

The overwhelming impression is that the entire island is turning into one continuous building site.

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

Yesterday’s protest in Valletta was about more than just opposition to a single project on ODZ land. It is also about growing concern that unbridled development is seriously impacting the quality of life in Malta.

The impact of the construction industry on both the Maltese economy and the environment is considerable. As regards the economy, investment in property is popular and gives people a sense of security. But it also makes our economy particularly vulnerable and dependent on one sector, which in turn has a negative impact on the quality of life.

A significant part of the population has already been subject to life on a construction site for the better part of the past decade or more. Moreover, the footprint of developable land seems to continually grow in Malta as a result of questionable planning decisions such as the 2006 ODZ extension and the more recent Zonqor Point proposal. The overwhelming impression is that the entire island is turning into one continuous building site.

It is difficult to justify this thirst for construction in view of the oversupply of vacant properties on the island. These admittedly come in different guises: some are old properties in disrepair, properties kept vacant to be sold at a later stage, and properties which do not match current market demands, or which are rented on the black market.

But there is no national policy on the use of vacant properties: for instance, fiscal incentives to encourage their use, or to at least keep such properties from falling apart. This should have been the first step taken by the government, before embarking on policies encouraging high rises, land reclamation and other developments.  

One counter argument is that the country may have an oversupply of property, but it still lacks specific kinds of developments, such as offices and luxury residences. Malta’s position in the global economy as a financial services centre does in fact create a demand for offices and apartments for high spenders: but this could also be an incentive to regenerate older buildings in places such as Valletta. 

Moreover, the need for offices for certain industries should not be used as an excuse for development which may have economic implications elsewhere: for instance, by ruining what makes Malta an attractive tourist destination. 

In brief, investment on its own is not a good justification for laxity in the planning sector. Everyone welcomes investment: but not at the cost of losing what little we have left of the environment. There is also a resources cost to bear in mind. Malta just does not have enough water for golf courses, as much as it has no snow for skiing. We must accept the limitations of our island, including its limited land area, which should militate against accommodating all sorts of residential developments. 

Secondly, we need to identify priorities. If the country needs more retirement homes and health-related development, we should identify the brownfield sites which could be used for this purpose before considering planning applications. Clear policies need to be drawn up. We cannot take such decisions on a case-by-case basis.

Yet our approach to urban planning has to date been sloppy and haphazard. One major bad planning decision was to allow an extra storey and penthouse in town centres and urban conservation areas in the 2006 local plan. This led to a dramatic change in the landscape of towns like Sliema and Gzira. But to allow more high rises to these areas will simply aggravate matters. Apart from landscape consideration, the impact on traffic infrastructure cannot be ignored. One cannot propose development which will simply create a gridlock.  

It is in this context of long term planning that the Structure Plan is a necessary tool. But the government has embarked on a reform of this legislation that has resulted in a set of guidelines which cannot even be enforced. The new document, SPED (Structural Plan for the Environment and Development), contains indications of policy directions, but – unlike the 2006 Structure Plan it replaced – no legislative tools for these policies to be enforced. 

Even the policies it contains are sparse in detail and in many cases subject to being overridden on arbitrary grounds, such as ‘the national interest’. 

In this sense we strongly appeal to the government to go back to the drawing board and come up with a more taxing document which includes enforceable policies. We need clear red lines, which should include: a general exclusion of any ODZ development except when strictly connected to agriculture, and a general presumption against development which alters historical views and landscapes. 

The very moment that SPED states that ODZ development can be considered whenever it is not “feasible” within development zones, we will be creating loopholes.

After these red lines are set, we need to focus our energies on development which respects its surroundings. We should start learning to say ‘no’ to developments which penalise our environment, as we have already said no to golf courses in the past. 

With serious long term planning we may still find a way of channelling investment while making Malta more beautiful. However, this cannot be achieved unless we change our entire approach to the issue of urban planning in Malta.

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