Muscat’s cheekiest claim ever? ‘Malta’s quality of life has improved greatly’

If only number of construction cranes were an indicator… Muscat might have been right in claiming Malta’s quality of life has risen. But here are six reasons why he’s wrong

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat recently claimed on Labour’s One Radio that “the quality of life of many Maltese has improved greatly”, undoubtedly a definition tied to economic well-being and consumer choice.

“This is reflected in the way people behave and in what they can afford,” Muscat added confidently, despite wages for Maltese workers remaining largely stagnant, but bolstered by popular measures such as free childcare, the abolition of exam fees, and free school transport that leaves more cash in people’s pockets.

Muscat may be more in synch with those concerns that predate his 2013 election; MaltaToday surveys suggest a shift away from concerns on cost of living, to growing worries about over-development, the environment, transport and immigration.

And while he is right to underline his government’s achievements, he is also now expected to address concerns as a result of his economic policies. Last Sunday’s declaration suggests no change of heart on Labour’s overall direction, extolling the birth of “the new middle class” despite the reality if “people who have fallen behind”.

So for Muscat, quality of life is tied to the prospect of greater material wealth achieved through social mobility… rather than an automatic right to live in liveable environment. And it is in this last aspect that quality of life has actually continued to deteriorate, thanks to a building boom propped by policies approved by past administrations but also by the Muscat government.

1. Endless construction has robbed people of their serenity

The 29,339 permits for new dwellings issued between 2016 and 2018 have had an inevitable social cost. Endless construction has disrupted the life of communities in different localities. It is no surprise that people living in regions spared from the building spree are not so keen on joining the party. A survey carried out by government last year showed that 61% of Cottonera residents would not change anything in their area, and that what they appreciated the most about their locality was the historical heritage and “the peace and quiet”.

It is towns like Gzira, Msida, Birkirkara, Pietà, St Julian’s and Sliema which have an already ageing population which are taking the brunt.

The elderly not only suffer because they have to cope with broken pavements but also because they are constantly pestered by speculators asking them to sell their own homes. They also suffer from a loss of collective memories as the landscape around them is constantly disfigured. They spend the last years of their life in fear of a repetition of a third-party collapse as that which happened in Hamrun, Mellieha and Guardamangia.

Following the third tragedy, the government reacted firmly by suspending excavation and issuing new regulations establishing a clearer chain of responsibilities. But while the latest regulations oblige developers to upload a ‘method statement’ on how excavations will be conducted and made available to third parties, concerned neighbours will still have to dig in their pockets to hire experts to assess these reports, thus leaving poorer residents more vulnerable than richer ones.

Moreover Muscat’s government shows no willingness to address the root of the problem; which is that too many permits are being issued.

2. The number of cars keeps increasing

The closure of the Marsa and Delimara power stations has contributed to a general improvement in air quality. But in 2018 Malta’s roads had to cater for 28,000 new vehicles, the largest yearly increase in car registrations since 2000. Malta also registered the second highest increase in carbon dioxide emissions from 2017 to 2018. Apart from contributing to deterioration in air quality and in carbon emissions, cars also shape our urban environment creating a demand for parking and traffic infrastructure. Road widening works in Rabat, Attard, Paola, San Gwann and Santa Lucija will cumulatively result in a loss of more than 90,000 square meters of agricultural land.

Positively Muscat is intent on introducing a cut-off date for ending the importation of petroleum driven cars, but in the absence of a mass transit transport system, the number of cars will keep increasing and more public spaces will be sacrificed to the car god.

3.  People cannot even walk on their pavements without being obstructed by chairs and tables

In various localities like Gzira people with pushchairs cannot even pass comfortably on pavements without swallowing cigarette smoke from diners accommodated on roadside platforms. Under Muscat’s government policies have been changed to facilitate the erection of platforms for restaurant chairs and tables. This has effectively turned pavements in to footpaths between restaurants and their tables. While this policy has probably made commercial establishments richer thus contributing to Labour’s popularity among businessmen, it has impoverished the daily life of common people.

4. Gentrification may start pushing people out of their communities

There is also the risk that the presence of a category of residents and tourists with a high disposable income will further inflate prices in way which could exclude people living on normal incomes from certain areas.

This may well contribute to the creation of enclaves where locals are simply driven out by higher prices. Added to this is the over shadowing of high-rise projects on surrounding neighbourhoods.

Muscat may well ask Labour voters living in housing estates in Pembroke whether their quality of life will improve in the wake of the DB project which was actively supported by his government.

5. Malta is becoming too overcrowded

Statistics issued by Eurostat show Malta experiencing the largest population increase in the EU in 2017.

The island’s population stood at 475,700 at the start of 2018, an increase of 3.4% over January 2017, according to the EU statistics agency. Added to this is the ever-growing number of tourists.

Foreign workers are a veritable economic resource as they fuel consumption, increase government revenue and even contribute to making our pension system sustainable. And indeed Muscat’s discourse fits nicely with the ‘best of times’ narrative in which foreigners flock to share in our wealth and contribute to make us richer.

But population growth also results in more cars, more waste, more construction, overcrowded beaches and more pressures on Malta’s limited resources. The increase in tourism is not only contributing to these pressures on its own but creates even greater demand for foreign labour.

Gated communities at the high end and ghettoes in working-class areas are also eroding social cohesion. While foreign labour is an inevitable aspect of a thriving small island economy, promoting endless construction and tourism growth is bound to backfire on the quality of life of all those who live here.

One way to put population numbers in check is by slowing down the pace of economic growth in some areas, possibly diverting growth to other more sustainable sectors. Promoting new sectors like medicinal cannabis can be part of the solution.

6. Fear of the future may come as a result of becoming too dependent on this economic model

Muscat also claimed that “parents are again feeling their children will have a better country than the one they had.”

He ignores the reality of parents who actually face questions from their own kids on why Joseph Muscat is permitting so many buildings.

People are already asking ‘what will happen if the construction boom comes to a halt and all the foreigners leave?’ There is a risk of becoming too dependent on an economic model which relies on construction and tourist numbers, the worst case scenario being that of a ‘junkie’ Malta dependent on the daily fix of construction, which is tied to the influx of foreign property buyers.

Moreover greater tourist numbers require even more foreign workers. In the meantime planning exceptions are made for hotels to build more rooms, a mix that suggests a dystopia of endless construction in towns, villages and countryside.

And when the supply of land is exhausted, land will be inevitably reclaimed from the sea. To keep this going we need to brand our country as a playground for the global rich, dishing our precious land at a cheap price to foreigners while increasing levels of inequality. The only way to sustain this economic model and keep the bubble from bursting is by constantly changing the goal posts to facilitate more construction and keep more foreigners coming.

As former Labour leader Alfred Sant had asked in an article he penned last year: “Does it mean that this country will end up like an Arab Gulf state, which depends on transitory human resources to fuel economic surges whose final outcome is unknown?” In some ways Muscat’s model is also contributing to uncertainty.