Build for tomorrow, not just today | Tara Cassar

Malta seems hell-bent on an unstoppable construction drive: but some NGOs seem equally hell-bent on bringing this urban sprawl under some form of control. Environmental crusaders? Radical extremists opposed to all progress? For Tara Cassar - an architect working for Flimkien Ghal Ambjent Ahjar (FAA) – it is more a case of trying to build a better place to live.

‘Flimkien Ghal Ambjent Ahjar’ came into being just over 10 years ago, partly in response to the controversial ‘rationalisation schemes’ which expanded the development zones in 2005/6. Its name implies a concern for the ‘environment’ as a whole... but it is also undeniably associated with one particular aspect of environmentalism: construction and development, with an emphasis on heritage preservation. Would you agree that FAA is, effectively, a single-issue lobby group?

I’d say, as an environmental group, FAA does focus on issues concerning urban planning, yes. But I wouldn’t call that a ‘single-issue’. Urban planning involves hundreds of different issues: it touches on pollution, the demolition of heritage buildings, trying to protect open spaces, preventing urban sprawl... To us it is a major issue that has hit Malta in recent decades. People feel that Malta is changing; and ultimately this is where we live... in our urban environment. It is not the only environmental issue that needs to be addressed, naturally; and there are other groups that are perhaps more specialised when it comes to tackling other particular issues. Our area of focus is urban planning; and I would say that it is an important one, because it has massive implications for our quality of life.

One peculiar aspect of urban planning in Malta is that... it doesn’t seem to really exist. Time and again we are confronted with scenarios where development permits are issued by the PA, when there is no regulatory planning framework in place. For instance, the ‘Paceville Masterplan’: it was supposed to regulate the development parameters of Paceville... yet permits for huge construction projects (eg. Mercury House) were issued before this plan was even finalised. Would you agree with this assessment... and if so, how do you account for our collective failure to execute any proper urban planning?

The Paceville Masterplan is, in fact, a good example of the general situation. Permits were coming out before the revision of the masterplan was approved and put into action: that, in itself, is proof that, yes, development is happening without any proper planning. I think there were times when things were done a little differently. The Structure Plan was an effort to break with that pattern; it had a vision, but it could only go so far. In fact, one of the big issues today is that existing planning laws in Malta are constantly being amended to facilitate more construction. There is pressure to build; and there is also the belief that construction is ‘the way forward’... and that it is our ‘right’ to build. Up to a point, this is true. We’re not against development per se; some parts of Malta do need to be developed; the problem is the way we go about it.

Nonetheless it is a very real problem: the ‘pressure to build’ does not come from nowhere. Malta is under pressure to maintain a high level of economic growth. And it seems that our only strategy is to encourage more and more development, ‘to keep the economic motor running’. In its defence, government points towards the thousands of jobs maintained by this sector alone. Is there any real alternative to construction as an economic strategy? How else can those jobs be guaranteed, and money generated in the country?

Right now, the number of people employed by the construction sector is growing, precisely because of the pressure to build. It’s a vicious circle. And as a result, the quality of the workmanship seems to be going down. The buildings themselves may be structurally sound – I’m not saying that they’re unsafe, or about to collapse.... but when you compare today’s buildings to those of the past, you get this impression that the standards of design and workmanship are not as high as they used to be. And the volume of development is much higher... we are eating into green areas, and building up every square inch of the remaining open spaces in urban areas. As for what can be done, we’re not suggesting a moratorium on new buildings. But there needs to be an assessment of what we’re doing, and where we’re going. Is there a need to develop a certain area twice as much as it would have been developed 10 years ago? Is there really a demand for it? And can we afford to do that in ALL development zones in Malta? Is it wise to increase population density in those areas, without investing in the necessary infrastructure? It doesn’t have to be a one-sided argument – a free-for-all, versus a total halt to all construction. What we’re saying is, let’s do things in such a way that considers tomorrow. If we’re going to develop certain areas: at least, protect open spaces, and provide new ones...

At the end of the day: what makes your property more sellable than someone else’s? What we’re saying is: make your property more valuable. Provide open spaces. It’s a luxury these days

It sounds reasonable, but at the end of the day, most development takes place on privately owned land. To play ‘the devil’s architect’... why should the owner of a private plot of land build what you want him to build on it... instead of what he wants himself? It’s his land...

It’s more a question of what the regulatory framework should allow people to build on private land. Let me give an example: there’s a massive area in the centre of Luqa, close to the village core and surrounded by development. Somehow, this area remained green for many years, even though it has been included in the development zone since 2006. Recently, people started applying to develop this area, and permits have started to be issued. FAA’s stance was not, ‘don’t build at all’. It wouldn’t be fair to do that: those people bought that land knowing that it could be developed. We can’t go and tell them, ‘don’t develop it because we prefer it to remain green’. But we can tell them: ‘if you’re going to build, make sure you provide open spaces, as you should according to existing policies’. That was our stand. And I would argue that it makes sense from a business perspective, too. Build those residential homes, by all means... but give the people who are going to live in them a decent quality of life. Don’t expect them to live in pigeonholes, because you want to maximise your profit. You’re still going to get that profit, but in a way that considers the people who are moving there, and the surrounding environment for everyone. This is another way in which development has changed in recent years: before, people used to build their own homes, for themselves. There was pride in what they built. They wanted to identify with those buildings; to show that ‘this is my home’... now, the driving force is to make a profit. And fine, people have a right to that, too. But there have to be other considerations. It can’t just be all about profit. And it doesn’t work for developers, either. At the end of the day: what makes your property more sellable than someone else’s? What we’re saying is: make your property more valuable. Provide open spaces. It’s a luxury these days. To live in a place which has an open patch of greenery and trees...  it makes the area nicer. I would pay more to live there. And if I were a developer, I would invest in that: rather than just the price per square metre. We’re really not saying ‘don’t build’: we’re saying, ‘Build for tomorrow, not just for today. Think 10 years ahead... not 10 months, or 10 weeks. Don’t think only about trying to sell it on plan, as quickly as possible...’

Let’s talk a little about how FAA is actually perceived out there. Critics of your organisation – which might include government, as well as lobby groups like the MDA – often deflect your arguments by dismissing FAA as being representative of only a tiny sliver of the Maltese population: mostly middle-class, overwhelmingly from Sliema (geographically and/or culturally) ... and therefore somewhat disconnected from the mainstream majority that actually welcomes and espouses large-scale construction. How much truth is there to that description... and how do you counter that argument when it is used against FAA?

Hmm. [Pause] Some might say that about all environmentalists, not just our group... that it is a ‘luxury’ to spend your time defending the environment...

We’re not suggesting a moratorium on new buildings. But there needs to be an assessment of what we’re doing, and where we’re going

Yes, that’s another facet of it. That these are ‘first-world problems’, only of concern to the most pampered segments of society...

What I would say to that? I would say that what we are trying to do is to consider everyone, really. We don’t only focus on Sliema. There is that perception, perhaps: and in itself this is not surprising. If, at a time, there were a lot of properties being demolished in Sliema – which there are, today – obviously, you end up fighting those cases... but not just because they happened in Sliema. You can only fight cases where they happen: and yes, Sliema was and still is targeted by excessive development. So if, effectively, people from Sliema started supporting FAA, because they saw someone that they knew, who was from their own locality... it was Astrid [Vella] at the time... who was fighting to preserve what they felt was their heritage... obviously it’s reasonable  that people from that area would support FAA. But it’s not just people from those areas. We get calls from concerned people all over Malta and Gozo... which in turn also means that the concern itself is not limited to any one social demographic, either. It might have started out as an area-specific issue, but today’s reality is that people everywhere are starting to feel affected...

We have so far concentrated on what FAA is trying to achieve... but not how it actually goes about it. NGOs generally adopt a multi-pronged approach: part of it would be raising awareness and galvanising support... but also actually confronting ‘the other side’ (as it were) though activism. In FAA’s case, that might include organising protests, or being present at public PA hearings to raise objections, etc. You mentioned Astrid Vella, who was omnipresent on this level. Now that she is no longer chairperson... do you envisage any changes in strategy?

We’re still focusing on the public awareness side; we still try to bring what we consider important cases to the public’s attention; we still attend PA board hearings... in fact, I would say that the main focus of our work goes into the technical side of it: in the case of an appeal, we will attend all the tribunal hearings; submit our objections, participate professionally at every level of the appeals system ... but that is also the part of our work that is least visible to the public. Which doesn’t help, to be honest. The Townsquare Project in Sliema, for instance, is still under appeal. We put a lot of work into building up a technical case as to why this project should not have been approved – months and months of work, which took a lot of time and energy.  But it all happens behind the scenes. None of it is public, until a decision is taken. It doesn’t mean the work’s not happening... but people might think it’s not...

This brings us to a deeper underlying issue. Recent statistics have shed light on the operations of the Planning Authority: for instance, the rate at which the board approves or rejects planning applications; how the individual board members vote; what percentage of decisions are overturned on appeal, etc... and it all points towards an overwhelming likelihood (over 80%) of final approval. When there are planning infringements, these do not result in refusal... instead, they are offset by ‘environmental contributions’. Does FAA intend to challenge this regulatory approach in any way?

The way I see it... if there are planning infringements, there are planning infringements. But there is also the issue of interpretation of policy. Policies exist, and have existed for some time. But many have changed recently, and many of these revisions have contributed to the construction drive we are witnessing today. SPED is one example; and the Rural Development Policy is another, which explains why we’re seeing so much more ODZ development. Then there’s the hotel height-adjustment policy, which is why the Mercury House project [in Paceville] got approved so easily. Not to mention changes in the DC15 (Development Control Design Policy, Guidance and Standards 2015) that, through subsequent changes effected through legal notices, directly led to a further increase in development within urban areas. What we are seeing today, then, is the result of policy-changes. So, to a certain extent, the people who take decisions – who vote on applications – will have no choice but to approve, in most cases. The recent ODZ fuel station approved in Maghtab is a case in point: it was approved because the application fit within the policy structure. But it doesn’t mean it was the right decision: there are other considerations, which the policies no longer reflect because of all those changes. It is tragic, really. So we believe that there needs to be a serious revision of policy. It is no use expecting planning decisions to be taken in the best interest of the surrounding environment and with consideration for the future... when the policies those decisions are based on are so flawed.