‘See cranes, think drains’ | Astrid Vella

Is Malta ready for a boom in high-rise buildings? Most emphatically not, argues Flimkien Ghal Ambjent Ahjar’s Astrid Vella 

Flimkien ghal Ambjent Ahjar founder Astrid Vella - Photo: Ray Attard
Flimkien ghal Ambjent Ahjar founder Astrid Vella - Photo: Ray Attard

It’s never a dull moment, when you’re committed to safeguarding the typical Maltese urban landscape (not to mention the entire natural environment) from speculative development.

Ask Astrid Vella. The founder of Flimkien Ghal Ambjent Ahjar, she has spent the better part of the past 15 years attending endless consultation meetings at MEPA, to resist an ever-increasing case-load of pending applications. Last Wednesday, she emerged (defeated, at least for now) from an attempt to halt a controversial seven-storey development project in the heart of Hal Lija: one of Malta’s most picturesque and unspoilt villages.

In what reads like the ‘Chronicle of a Permit Foretold’, this particular Planning Authority board meeting followed the same pattern of many previous ones. Despite numerous policies aimed at preventing such blatantly discordant architectural hiccups, the permit was once again given the green light.

Does this cement the perception that the Planning Authority exists as a mere rubberstamping machine for speculative development?

“In the case of yesterday’s hearing, that was definitely true and clear from the outset,” she replies without hesitation in her Sliema apartment. (I find it significant that she first had to close the window, to block out the deafening noise of a jackhammer across the road.) “Every argument put forward by the objectors was rebuffed, not by the developer, but by the chairman of the board. Throughout the meeting, the chairman spoke only in favour of the developer: making no attempt to hide an obvious bias.”

Is it just the chairman of the PA board who is biased, though… or is it the legislation and building guidelines that supposedly govern the authority’s decisions? At face value, what we seem to be looking at are two different perspectives on the same local plans. Vella, an environmentalist, looks at those plans and sees only policies to protect the urban landscape… developers look at them, and see only what they can get away with building.

Could it be that both perspectives are correct, but that it’s the plans that are at fault?

“There are undeniably issues with the local plans: two in particular that are relevant to this case. The first is that the policies all insist on protection of characteristic towns and villages. There is a raft of policies which state that. Conversely, however, the maps of the local plan do favour increased intensification of urbanisation, as well as higher buildings. The chairman herself admitted [during the meeting] that she was going by the only document that favoured the developer, and ignoring all the other policies. She said that herself. Now, I raised the issue that the policies very often contradict what is said in the plans… and very often there is contradiction between the plans themselves, as shown in the Wied il-Ghasel case. And we know, because this was communicated to us by a MEPA official, that the local plans were tweaked by Minister George Pullicino in 2006. The minister has the legal right to make changes to environmental laws and policies; and there were widespread changes to the plans, which accounts for why the plans contradict the policies. 

What sort of changes?

“I will go as far as to say that, when changes were made to urban conservation zones – the most sensitive area – we could trace those changes to projects whose sites were all changed in favour of the development. This happened consistently. There is a clear paper trail of changes to the local plans favouring development at the expense of the urban streetscape…”

At the same time, we are talking about decisions taken in 2006. That’s 10 years ago, and there has obviously been a change in government since then. Yet the construction and development drive seems to have ploughed on regardless…

“The drive has increased,” she points out sharply. “This is why I strongly rebut any claim that we [FAA] had in any way supported Joseph Muscat. The writing was on the wall, and you had to be blind not to see it. I said this during a TV debate before the election. Usually we have a policy to keep a low profile at election time; but we broke that policy because we saw what was coming. In that debate I made a very strong attack on Labour’s lack of plans and vision for the environment…”

The point I was coming to, however, is that we seem to be condemned from both sides to a policy of constantly offering up more and more land to development. Civil society has been vociferous in its opposition; people have protested, sometimes in unusually large numbers about this sort of thing… yet there has been no difference; actually, as Vella herself put it, things have got worse.

Are people beginning to give up?

She shakes her head. “No, things might really change now, because the public outcry is now going across the board. People are no longer taken in by political brainwashing. They no longer believe the old mantra that ‘the Maltese economy depends on development’. It has finally been debunked. We’ve been saying this for years, and the message has sunk in. Tourism employs over 55,000 people. Development employs around 11,000…”

On paper, that may be true; but there are other ways in which development can be seen an economic motor. For better or worse, the Maltese public still has faith in the development sector as an investment. Local investors are willing to invest in property… and this is what fuels the construction boom…

“Sadly, that is true. It is a very deep-rooted belief. But we have been approached by estate agencies (including some of the most established and prestigious ones) who are worried by this sudden spate of high-rise development, because they feel – as does the Minister for the Economy, and Labour MP Charles Buhagiar, among others – that this boom carries the seeds of its own destruction. Since property development is a major vehicle for investment, the implications of over-development, and the bubble bursting, go beyond developers and speculators. That is the worry of estate agents: everyone will be affected across the board. Malta has one of the highest percentages in Europe of property ownership. Then there’s the issue raised by the IMF, the EU and the Maltese central bank of the danger of the banks’ over-reliance on the development sector…”

That is however another area where Maltese public faith is strong. The local banking sector is viewed as a lot more prudent and cautious, when investing in construction projects, than other jurisdictions. It is certainly harder to get a loan in Malta, than in other less financially conservative countries.

“It’s hard to get a loan from some banks, but not others. The Central Bank two years ago already reported that defaulting loans had gone up from 4% to around 8%, and it was clearly spelt out in the report that the difference was exclusively made up of unrecovered loans in the development sector. Not the domestic or industrial sectors….”

Nor is it just the banks that sometimes seem willing to invest in unviable projects, she adds. “This same laissez-faire attitude gives birth to projects like the A4 towers facing the Addolorata, which is one of Malta’s high-rise fiascos: a vertical corpse which the public is now bailing out from its taxes. Transport Malta’s decision to rent office space from the A4 towers, instead of using any of the masses of public properties that lie vacant, is a burden on the public. 

Is she suggesting the decision was taken to bail out the developers?

“It had that effect. By renting out office space, Transport Malta is utilising the empty space created by the rash move on the part of the Montebello brothers: who went for an outsize project that was clearly beyond their capabilities. Who is left to carry the can? The public, out of its taxes. And out of four recent high-rise projects – Portomaso, A4 towers, Metropolis, and Mistra Towers – three have been utter fiascos. Only one [Portomaso] was a success. So how can we possibly contemplate that the market will find its own level, in the face of this track record? We have to be ultra-sure what we’re going into, because of the implications on every level. Not just environmental, but also social.”

Speaking of the impact, FAA has long complained that Malta was contemplating high-rise development without giving due consideration to the infrastructural and logistical implications…

“It’s not just what FAA says. It’s what the experts think, too. We were involved in the report by the high-rise expert brought over by MEPA from Chicago. He came here full of hopes that high-rise would be the solution to all Malta’s planning issues. He left very emphatically insisting that Malta is not ready for high-rise. High-rise should not be considered until a number of things have been set right: primarily, the infrastructure. He was adamant that the success of a high-rise building relies on efficient mass-transit. That is obviously not available in Malta. Not even our bus system is efficient, let alone mass transport systems. That means everybody will continue to come into and leave the area using their own vehicles. In Sliema, the whole area would just grind to a halt…”

Apart from traffic, there are other issues simmering (literally) below the surface.     

“People are increasingly starting to think about sewage, along with water and electricity. One person I know famously said: ‘where I see cranes, I think drains’. It is not just the increase in the number of people residing on the same footprint; it is also the commercial uses that intensify the pressure on local infrastructure. When you replace one typical townhouse, which has a maximum of six occupants, with an office block employing 50… just compare the pressure on the drains.

“Hotels likewise consume much more water and electricity than other structures. The very concept of high-rise itself, which is touted as ‘environmentally sustainable’, is now being questioned by a UN report: the higher you build, the more exposed you are to sun and wind, heat and cold; and therefore the more dependent on artificial heating and cooling. Tall buildings are enormous guzzlers in terms of energy; also to raise lifts to higher levels, and even to pump water up to those heights…”

Another consideration comes as a surprise to me: Vella warns that Malta is now experiencing sickness due to lack of natural light. 

“Dr Antoine Borg, one of Malta’s leading psychiatrists, recently told a conference that he never dreamt he would see, in such a sunny country, conditions like ‘seasonal affective disorder syndrome’:  a depression aggravated by lack of sunlight, which is common in Scandinavian countries. We are beginning to experience this here, too. People are increasingly living in artificial lighting from morning till night, because their natural light has been blocked by neighbouring buildings. It’s not just high-rise. We encounter people who tell us that the natural sea-breezes that used to make summers bearable have been blocked by construction, and that they’ve had to install air-conditioning. This is naturally bad for national energy consumption, but it also creates social problems. Not everyone can afford air-conditioning and higher bills…”

All this, she adds, runs counter to the perceptions that high-rises are actually better for the environment, because they fit more development onto the same footprint.

“There are two myths that need to be debunked. For years, we have heard this sickening mantra, ‘better to build up than out’. This is dishonest, because we are talking about two very different genres of property which do not replace each other. People who need a pick-up truck are not going to buy a limo. People who need a tool-room, a greenhouse, a villeggjatura residence, are still going to want that… they are not going to buy a flat in a high-rise building instead. Proof of this is that, despite the spate of high-rise developments, the number of applications in ODZ has never been higher. High-rise is doing nothing to dampen the demand for building in ODZ.”

The second myth is that high-rise will diminish urban congestion: that the building envelope will be less congested, because higher buildings will have more surrounding space. 

“The reality is that these new apartments, especially in mega-projects, are selling for anything from 400,000 upwards. They have to be expensive, because the cost of building high-rise is so much higher: the extra foundations, the taller cranes, the much costlier building materials, all the studies that have to be conducted, far more design teams and staff than the average building projects we are used to… High-rise, of necessity, costs much more. And there is no way the average Maltese family can afford such accommodation… which means that housing for average requirements still needs to be built. The demand will not be met by high-rise. Undeveloped plots still have to go up to the six and seven storeys of average Maltese buildings. So we are simply adding, not subtracting…

At the same time, there is a floor-to height ratio which supposedly compensates by creating space for the public. But Astrid Vella is unimpressed. 

“How much open space does the public have access to at Portomaso? Not only were the originally designed public open spaces either built-upon, or closed off to the public… like the yacht marina, which is gated most of the time. Not only that, but the development has actually encroached on sacrosanct public property: the beach. No open space there. What open space is there at Midi?” 

Well, there is a square at the heart of it, and it seems to be open to anyone…

“But it’s an open space that was designed only to attract people to the commercial aspect, and is now encroached upon by all the restaurants and cafes. Restaurants and cafes are not public spaces… they are not free for anyone to use. Meanwhile what space is there at Fort Cambridge? Or in the permit given to Metropolis?”

That permit, she adds, breaks all MEPA’s own laws on open space, which specify that it has to be at street level. “In Metropolis, the ‘public space’ is three floors up. Permits are being issued in flagrant violation of MEPA’s own policies. We are already building open spaces which are not accessible to the public.

“How accessible will the open space be at Mriehel? I’m talking about spaces for the general public, not users of that project. Where is the benefit to the community? Because that is what the open space policy was meant to be: a benefit to the community, to compensate for taking away their light and air. Are the residents of Santa Venera, Balzan, H’Attard going to risk crossing a suicidal highway to get to an open space there… when there is San Anton to go to? Will it really serve a public gain? Or is it just yet another pretext to grant developers the opportunity for a speculative project?”

Coming back to the issue of costs: with so many high-end, niche (and ultra-expensive) properties coming onto the market, we might be increasing the supply far beyond existing demand. In fact, it seems we are hoping to create the demand where it doesn’t necessarily exist. What happens, then, if the glut of top-end accommodation doesn’t sell? Is this what FAA meant, when it echoed the fears of the ‘property bubble bursting’?

“Yes. This comes to the reason why we instituted injunctions prohibiting the PA from issuing permits last month, before the proper studies were carried out. Without studies that analyse the social impact – and especially the viability of such projects – we must ask ourselves if it is realistic to build such major developments on the basis of a demand which doesn’t exist yet, or which is still at the early stages. Especially when we see that the high-end investors who are coming to Malta have actually been investing in quite modest apartments in Mellieha and Mgarr…  or sharing flats in Bugibba, Birzebbugia.

“They are not buying the high-end properties that are available here and now. So what guarantee is there, that future projects will be bought out by this same type of investor? Abroad, in several EU countries, permits are only given if there is tangible proof of pre-purchase of the majority of units. Here? So far, nothing has been provided by the investor to give any assurances.”