Sustainability in Malta’s ‘years of plenty’ | Maurice Mizzi

‘Sustainability’ is a serious concern in Malta, where the speed of economic growth has raised questions concerning poverty, social injustice, environmental degradation and economic irresponsibility. Chev. Maurice Mizzi director of Mizzi Organisation, and also the State-appointed ‘Guardian of Future Generations’ – outlines the main priorities…

Photography by James Bianchi
Photography by James Bianchi

The ‘Guardian of Future Generations’ was established by Article 8 of the Sustainable Act, with the aim of “safeguarding inter-generational and intra-generational sustainable development in Malta”. Can you tell us a little about how this entity is composed, and how it works in practice? What does the GFG plan to do, to ensure sustainability in Malta?

If I may, I would like to quote Norwegian Prime Minister Greta Thunberg, who said in 1987 that “We act as we do because we can get away with it. Future generations do not vote. They have no political or financial power.” So, it is left to us, as Guardian of Future Generations, to look out for their interests. Originally, the GFG was composed of four members chosen by the government, and recently we were given a secretary and joined by another member. Our duties include seeing to it that, while the needs of present generations are being met, these will not compromise the needs of our future generations. As you know, countries tend to go through periods of prosperity, followed by periods of economic downturn. This is nothing new; it happened thousands of years ago, in the Biblical story of the ‘seven years of plenty, followed by seven years of famine’. We hope that this will not happen in Malta.

Avoiding that scenario may take more than just ‘hope’, though. The law that established GFG also specifies that its members should convene every quarter, and develop audits of areas or sectors “deemed to contribute towards sustainable development”. How many audits has the GFG carried out so far?

Initially, we had a bit of a blip with the financing…

Yes, in fact, your predecessor Michael Zammit Cutajar, stepped down in protest at the lack of resources…

[Nodding] But now we’ve finally got the financing we needed, and additional staff, and we’ve hit the ground running at full speed. We were supposed to be meeting once every three months; we are now meeting every three weeks. We’ve had two conferences, both of which were very successful… but our job is not just to know the state of play; but also, wherever possible, to do something about it. To put forward recommendations. So we’ve also had several meetings with different stakeholders – Caritas, to mention one example – and we have identified a list of priority areas.

There are 17 Sustainable Development goals, established by the United Nations, which have to be reached by the year 2030. As a group of only five people, we cannot tackle them all at once. We need to prioritise, and we’ve chosen to focus on poverty as the number one priority because there are people – not many, perhaps, but not an insignificant number either – who are sleeping in the streets. It is disconcerting that – in a country where we are supposed to have a surplus, and where there are only 2,000 people out of work – the number of people living in a state of material poverty stands at around 14,000…

Poverty is no doubt a top priority – it is, in fact, number one on the UN list of sustainable development goals. But some of the other 17 UN targets are also very critical and urgent. There is water sustainability; climate action; sustainable cities and communities; clean energy; sustainable economy and infrastructure… how sustainable is Malta on any of those fronts?

It is our role to examine each of those goals – and yes, there is something to say about each of them. But we felt we had to distinguish between those situations that are urgent, and demand something to be done straight away… and those which, while still urgent in themselves, may not require immediate action. We felt that poverty, and the risk of poverty, is something that cannot be postponed any further. But we have also identified three other priority areas: the economy, health, and the environment. One other thing I feel I have to point out, however, is that Malta has not, so far, ratified the 2000 European Convention of the Council of Europe – which [quoting] ‘promises the protection, management and planning of landscapes […] inspired by heightened national concern on what is regarded as overdevelopment in many localities, to the detriment of urban fabric and aesthetics’. So far, 39 countries have ratified this convention. [wry smile] The only two countries that haven’t, are two countries to which I have a connection myself: my own country, Malta; and Iceland, of which I am honorary consul. As GFG, we would like to see this convention ratified…

All four priority issues you mention – poverty, the economy, health and the environment – are connected with ‘overdevelopment’. The construction boom is, in part, fuelled by demand from wealthy immigrants employed in financial services, etc; this in turn pushes up rental and property prices, and fuels inflation. The same economic motor also affects public health – air quality, noise pollution, etc, – and the connection with the environment is too obvious to even mention. Wouldn’t you say, then, that Malta’s ‘years of plenty’ are unsustainable?

There are two ways to look at this, as with everything else. Something can be positive in itself, but may have negative repercussions. Construction, in itself, is not a bad thing. Why do we have buildings…? Thirty years ago, I used to go abroad, and people would ask me: ‘Where is Malta?’ Today, they have found Malta, and they are coming in their droves. On holiday, as tourists; but there are also people who are coming here because we also have full employment. Unlike many other countries where there are economic problems, here, they find work. So, a lot of people are coming… and obviously, they need a place to live. Now: what does the government do? Tell them not to come…?

Earlier you used the analogy of the ‘years of plenty’… followed by ‘years of famine’. What if this Biblical prophecy comes true? What would happen if there is an economic downturn, and all those people leave?

I’ll come to that. At the moment, however, it is government’s policy to attract as many people as possible, so that the economy continues to grow… I’m not saying it’s necessarily the right policy; but that is the government’s policy…

But that’s precisely what I’m asking. Do you agree with that policy? Is it sustainable?

There is a lot of construction going on. I don’t know if it’s going to be too much…. but personally, I do feel it is too fast. We could achieve the same positive economic results, without the undue haste. Let me give you an example; for the past seven years, I have been visiting Corfu regularly. In those seven years, I have not seen one single crane. And the greenery runs all the way from the mountains, down to the sea. I don’t call it ‘Corfu’. I call it ‘Paradise’. And the people there follow Plato’s theory that happiness is the most important thing in life. Happiness, not money. In Malta, I’m afraid we have turned that on its head. In Malta, money is all too often the most important thing.

Many would agree with you there. But I’m afraid, at this point, I have to ask an awkward question. In 2017, in a commentary to your own Mizzi Organisation newsletter, you spoke highly of the benefits of Malta’s “bubbling economy”, and lauded the Labour administration for having “opened their doors and are giving building permits without delving too deeply into the parameters of building regulations they are meant to be upholding.” You also wrote: “Whereas previous administrations were possibly too careful and too strict in granting building permits, the policies of this administration have resulted in an enormous array of lifts and building machinery…” The Mizzi Organisation has very clear interests in the construction sector. Isn’t this a conflict of interest?

Unfortunately… I can understand how people would see it that way. I said this to the minister myself, when I was first appointed. I pointed out to him that I am a businessman, and I have different interests. I felt it could come across badly…

Having asked the question, I feel it’s only fair to add that a lot of other people could say the same thing… but don’t.

But [the minister] wouldn’t hear of it, and assured me that I had his full confidence. Fortunately, I am also supported by a very good, very motivated team… and unlike me, they are not directly involved in business. There are no conflicts of interest there…

You do seem to be acknowledging, however, that a conflict exists in your case…

[Shrugs] Sometimes, I have to criticise people who are our own customers. So yes, it places me in a very strange situation. But I believe in Malta; I would like to see Malta progress. I want to see Malta vying with other countries, not just in the economy – where we are the best – but in other areas, too.  Such as social justice; health, the environment…

Fair enough, let’s look at some of these issues. In a recent speech you highlighted air pollution as a main concern. “This is caused by many factors; planes, pleasure steamers in our ports. Construction and cars and trucks’. Again, I feel I have to point out that this interview is taking place at Continental Cars. We’ve already gone through the conflict of interest part, where you were gentlemanly enough to acknowledge the concern. But we are also living on an island where cars seem to be taking priority over people. As someone commercially involved in the automotive industry, do you share that concern?

Cars, no doubt, are part of the problem; until we get more people to use electric vehicles. From the perspective of a businessman: we adapt ourselves to the new technologies. That’s not where the problem lies. But I do see one major challenge in Malta. Only 40% of the population have garages, where they can recharge the battery. At the moment – and I say ‘at the moment’, because technology is moving very fast – if you don’t have a garage, you have to plug it into a public charger and wait for at least an hour. In three years, I have not seen one car charging at an outdoor station. Maybe I’ve been unlucky, and always missed them. But I think the infrastructure is not in place yet. So, there is still a lot to be done…

Traffic is not the only contributor to air pollution. Construction is another. This brings us back to the sustainable development theme. Isn’t the construction boom itself part of the problem here?

As things stand today, one third of the country is built. Nowhere in Europe is that overdeveloped. Whether we like it or not, we are on a very fast lane. This creates problems. The first thing I learnt, when I studied economics, was that when demand exceeds supply, the price rises. This is what has happened. The price of property has increased by 20 or 30%, and we now hear of people sleeping in cars, in apartment entrances, in cardboard boxes. This is unacceptable. The problem could be addressed, however, by building more social housing…

Yet most of the larger development projects going up are planned for the high-end of the market: luxury accommodation for tourists, luxury apartments for millionaires… and, as you yourself earlier hinted, there is no guarantee that Malta will remain the economic miracle it is today forever. We could end up with a lot of empty luxury apartments. Yet you seem to be proposing more construction to solve the problem. Is construction the only answer to everything?

But social housing is needed. I approached the minister myself personally about this; and he assured me that there are plans to build 700 new homes. I asked him when they’d be ready by; and the answer was two years. This means that homeless people will face another two winters without a roof over their heads…

I fully understand the need for social housing, as a short-term solution to an immediate housing crisis.  But it doesn’t address the imbalance in the property market. There have been suggestions to cap the number of planning permits for luxury accommodation, for instance. Or even a moratorium on large-scale projects. Do you agree? And shouldn’t the planning authority be evaluating such permit applications within a holistic context… instead of on a case-by-case basis?

I certainly agree that there is not enough planning. First of all, there should have been a masterplan. In fact, there was a masterplan; but it seems to have disappeared. [Pause] Let me put it to you another way. Unfortunately, I go abroad. I say ‘unfortunately’ because I’d be a much happier man if I didn’t. When I go abroad, I see that they will have a plan in place for the next 20 years. In Malta, we don’t even plan for the next three months.

To conclude with one more example of this lack of planning: the proposed Gozo-Malta tunnel link. Parliament has just approved the project, while the scientific and environmentalist impact assessments are still being carried out. You have already expressed disapproval of this project. Could you expand?

There has been a lot of talk about a Gozo-Malta tunnel. But whether it will really happen or not, is another question. When you look at the costs – around two billion euro – where will that money come from? Not to mention the return on capital. I don’t think you’ll get 5% return on the money spent. So, in my opinion, I don’t think it will ever happen. Or at least, there is a strong possibility that it won’t happen. It doesn’t make sense economically. Another question is, where do we put all the debris? How will it affect the water table? No, this is one other area where I think we are running too fast. Whoever takes this decision will have a heavy load on his shoulders….

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