What the Maltese want...

Once again, the latest Eurobarometer Survey revealed that the top three concerns for the Maltese remain immigration, housing and the environment.

In November last year, immigration had topped the list with 50%, followed by housing at 29%, and the environment at 28%.

This year, immigration and environment remained stable, while housing shot up to a staggering 43%.

The need for government to tackle these three main prevalent concerns is obvious, because whatever it is doing is either not effective enough, or not filtering down to the man on the street.

In case of immigration, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat has recently taken on a more outspoken stance when standing up to Italy’s Salvini, and refusing to allow migrants to disembark when Malta was not the closest port of call – unless a placement agreement is agreed upon with other EU countries prior to allow the disembarkation.

But migrants saved at sea is only one side of the story. The government needs to do more to facilitate the integration of foreigners in our communities, as well as providing the tools and knowledge for a smooth integration process.

Moreover, Maltese who say they are concerned about immigration, do not normally refer to those saved at sea and brought to Malta; nor to the huge influx of foreign workers, mostly from Scandinavian countries, working in the gaming and blockchain industries. Their only point of reference is the number of migrants they see loitering around village squares and major thoroughfares, seemingly waiting for yet another job that the Maltese no longer seem inclined to do.

It is these migrants that must be better assisted, while the Maltese need to better understand the challenges, and abuse, those same migrants face on a daily basis when trying to earn a living.

Regarding housing, the rise is concern in clearly connected to an exorbitant rise in property prices, and the interlinked issue of higher rents (caused by higher wages paid to foreigners) is definitely something the government has to address.

Higher property prices mean that entrants into the home ownership market – mostly young couples – are finding it much harder to buy, especially at a time when banks have become more cautious on loaning out money.  And higher rents make it unaffordable for those who have never afforded to buy a house and lived all their life in rented accommodation.

Admittedly, solutions are not clear cut and government has to tread a fine line between the competing interests of many sectors.

The root cause of the sudden appreciation in property prices and a thriving rental market is the rapid economic expansion that has also created a higher demand from foreigners coming to live and work in Malta. That demand is unlikely to go away any time soon, but tackling the social consequences of a booming economy has become an imperative.

The government seems to be hedging most of its bets on the residential rent reform act, which provides incentives to landlords that would enable them to offer more stability for tenants, even though the proposed solutions do not necessarily address the issue of rent affordability.

Government may have to seriously consider revisiting past policies that have since been ditched, such as putting a stock of affordable property for rental purposes on the market.

This has nothing to do with social housing, which is a different kettle of fish. There are people, who work, earn a wage and do not qualify for social benefits, but who are unable to buy their own house or afford monthly rental payments that would gobble up their income.

These people need to have access to a stock of property that is affordable. Government must either provide this itself, or enter into some form of partnership with developers - who have been ‘making hay while the sun shines’ – to put up a percentage of affordable buildings for every lucrative investment they make.

However, the environment will no doubt be the toughest nut to crack, as here the private interests also coincide with government’s own ‘business first’ approach.

Apart from such welcome proposals as the creation of a large national park next to the Freeport, the Central Link and Santa Lucija projects appear to have cemented perceptions of government as uncaring, intent on developing infrastructure at all costs, as it struggles to contain yet another huge public concern: traffic congestion.

This, too, is the result of greater affluence: forging an inverse proportionality between prosperity levels, and environmental degradation. Government in fact defends these road-widening projects on the basis that a majority expects a higher infrastructural standard to reflect their own, improved standards of living.

Ironically, however, concern with the environment is (for obvious reasons) much higher than concerns with financial well-being.

Does it even make sense for government to push and promote economic success, at the expense of the environment, when the public does not seem to have any major financial concerns? In fact, 86% of Maltese feel their households are in a good financial position, compared to 72% across the EU. And two-thirds of Maltese citizens were content with their job position and pay.

It is therefore obvious what the Maltese really want their government to tackle.