Can Malta cope with its population growth?

The 2011 census showed over 5,000 people lived in houses in which the number of rooms was equal to or outnumbered the persons living in the house. Will this warning of unaffordable housing worsen in the next 2020 census?

Malta’s standard of living might dip in the near future due to an ever-increasing population, University of Malta professor of geography John Schembri, says.

Schembri’s main concern is that if a massive population density is coupled with an inadequate distribution of wealth, the number of persons per room in Malta might become a worrying statistic.

“As long as Maltese governments are not selfish and tackle the problem of overpopulation, the Maltese have enough enterprise and mental strength to fight it,” Schembri, an expert on human geography who works on the compilation of the population census, says.

“Malta is like one big city. It was always a pole of attraction. Malta’s population exploded from 20,000 to 100,000 after Valletta was built. It was surprising at the time because Malta had no resources to speak of... The same thing happened in 1869 when the Suez Canal was opened and the British empire employed Malta as a station in the chain of British colonies. Malta became a link in that chain. During the First World War, Malta had the availability of 25,000 beds for the wounded – when you consider that Mater Dei hospital has only 1,000, you realise how enormous this was. Every place that could become a hospital became a hospital and the beds were constantly occupied,” Schembri said.  

The last population census of 2011 has shown that 67,000 foreigners were living in Malta then, 14.1% of the entire population. It’s up to the next census of 2021 to indicate whether the majority of these have moved on.

Schembri believes that most economic migrants in Malta return home.  

“They usually circulate and most of the time return home. But they are coming from everywhere – Europe, sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, the Philippines. If they come from areas that are war-torn, they are likely to stay here for longer.”

Prof. John Schembri’s main concern is that if a massive population density is coupled with an inadequate distribution of wealth, the number of persons per room in Malta might become a worrying statistic
Prof. John Schembri’s main concern is that if a massive population density is coupled with an inadequate distribution of wealth, the number of persons per room in Malta might become a worrying statistic

Schembri explains that Malta’s population density was always high, and at 1,300 persons per square kilometre, it is easily and by far the highest population density in Europe. “Population density was always high. We got used to it. What’s worrying is the number of persons per room. Census compilers ask people how many rooms they have in their house and ask how many people live in that particular household.”
The 2011 census already showed that this figure was quite high, with over 5,000 people living in houses in which the number of rooms was equal to or outnumbered the persons living in the house. It also showed that thousands lived in different institutions such as monasteries, welfare institutions and convalescent homes.  

“The number of persons per room can be shocking where you have four, five, even six people per room in densely-populated areas. It’s reflective of a lack of affordability. It doesn’t make sense socially, hygienically and from a family-environment perspective,” he says, adding that this should be of concern to policymakers and that constant checking was required.  

It’s also reflective of an inadequate distribution of wealth, he said.  

Schembri says Malta always thrived on big projects, pointing at the inauguration of the Valletta breakwater in 1903 as an example, a project that made the Grand Harbour an all-weather harbour. It was a project that generated a lot of work, as had the construction of the airport runway in the 1970s. As a British colony, at one point the dockyards employed 14,000.

“All major construction projects brought an influx of workers and saw a population increase,” Schembri says, noting however that populations tended to be tempered by the impact of wars, or illnesses such as the Spanish flu, and of course emigration from Malta to Australia, Canada, the UK and the USA.

“There was always this policy to get in as many people as possible to work in what is such a small place after all. Today we are not only attracting people to work in construction but also to work in IT, gaming, technology and so on. The economy has now diversified. And while not a lot of land space is required for these industries – as opposed to previous industries such as the textile trade – the only way our population growth can be controlled now is if these foreign workers start returning home.”
 
Where do we go from here?

The Maltese census today is compiled differently to previous editions. Previously, the census used to show how many people moved from one locality to another. Nowadays, it only shows the three most popular localities. “People are moving out of areas that are congested if they own a car. Shopping areas too have developed in the suburbs – the cities aren’t the only popular shopping spots anymore. The last very comprehensive data we have is for the census of 2011, which was very important. This showed that most people who went to Attard, for example, are people from Hamrun and Birkirkara,” he said.  

He added that Malta, demographically, is now more concentrated in the centre and north and that people are basically moving just slightly farther away from cities.  

“It’s interesting to note that only 60,000 people live above the Victoria Lines, including all of Gozo. All the rest, more than 400,000, congregate in the centre and north of Malta. The reason, possibly, is that this area is rather flat and it’s easier to build infrastructure. The rest is hilly.

“We’re already seeing Mgarr being slowly built up, however. It will be sad to see if the western part of Malta starts becoming heavily developed too,” Schembri said.

While he is hopeful that this would never become a reality, he says that this movement towards the suburbs has been happening for years. “Floriana was designed to deal with the excessive population in Valletta. Paola was designed to deal with the urban sprawl as well. Fgura was built due to the excessive population in Paola, and so on and so forth. Even Attard, which was once a quiet suburb, has become overpopulated with 12,000 persons per square kilometre there. This is indicative of a high number of persons per room.”

Schembri cites village cores as a possible solution. He says that he expects a new demographic movement towards the village cores, especially because village cores are protected from congestion, they are central, and attractive. But, even here, Schembri grimaces and notes that village cores could be targeted by businessmen and developers, mentioning as an example a boutique hotel planned in the Attard village core. “If anything, people will have to adapt to living in flats,” Schembri says.

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