Over the last couple of weeks, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, perhaps in response to concerns of a vocal and growing environmentalist lobby, has been on something of a green rampage. A wide variety of pledges have been forthcoming, ranging from the transformation of Gozo into a hub for electric vehicles, proposals for free bus routes, to talk of afforestation and the creation of gardens, and so on. A new focus on all things green then, is the flavour of this month.
Whether or not any of these pledges are realised remains to be seen. Even if they are, however, the fact remains that on the environment, the government’s performance to date has been abysmal.
Evidence is unequivocal and in abundance: measured levels of air pollution that are consistently beyond recommended limits, the relocation of greenery from within the public realm to out-of-sight-out-of-mind, or its destruction, a strategy for transport (or lack thereof) where the sole focus is the car, a seemingly chronic inability to get to the bottom of the sludge that has disgusted swimmers for the last couple of summers, or money spent on phantom international organisations to declare beaches plastic-free. No to mention repeat proposals to encroach or expand ODZ boundaries, or to “transform” beautiful beaches with pseudo-luxury marinas or hotels. If the government goes ahead with its plans for a bored tunnel to Gozo, two large areas of virgin land and a large chunk of the reclaimed sea bed will be obliterated.
Many of these issues pre-date this administration, but the same miserable standards have been upheld with gusto
Our diagnosis of the problem should extend to the built environment and the treatment of heritage, where symptoms have been particularly acute.
The Planning Authority, which these days seems decidedly planning-free, has approved 13,000 new applications, most of which will require material resources which the same authority can’t or won’t quantify. Old buildings are dropping like flies, and proposals for apartments, hotels and petrol stations sprout like fungus.
That most newly-proposed buildings lack architectural merit, or that the spaces between buildings are disregarded completely (or rather, regarded as open space for vehicles and not people), is well- documented. The new president of the Kamra tal-Periti, Simone Vella Lenicker, has spoken about the “Uglification” of Malta, as have others. Indeed, a random selection of any street, anywhere in Malta (other than the obvious historic core or natural site) will likely yield: tarmac, broken pavements, lack of greenery, and the badly-built apartments that we are now, sadly, all familiar with. Many of these issues pre-date this administration, but the same miserable standards have been upheld with gusto.
If you were sitting on land worth more than 10 lifetimes of savings, what would you do?
Central to this discussion is the Government’s preferred economic model, which turns anyone with access to the most finite of Maltese resources – land – into a budding developer or hotelier.
As an architect friend put it: if real estate is the single focus, then quality is only a priority during recessions. In Pieta, for example, architects and developers have been rightly criticised for insensitive and oversized proposals. But if you were sitting on land worth more than 10 lifetimes of savings, what would you do? Incentives are important and shaping them is the prerogative of government.
Even within this economic model, there is plenty that can be done.
Appropriate taxation of speculative development to disincentivise could be a start. As would be the strengthening and expansion of urban cores, or the zoning of future nature reserves, parks and urban spaces. Developers could be made to invest in surrounding infrastructure or forced to up their game by the imposition of more onerous standards. Consider that in the UK, for example, developers are often forced to maintain good relations with neighbours, to prove that they are investing in the local community, to hire armies of consultants for planning, heritage and sustainability, and even to respect the nesting habits of bats! If they’re going to make hay while the sun shines then, at the environment’s expense and our inconvenience, just how much hay is made and who gets the hay are important questions.
Questions might also be asked of the government’s own proposals
Only last month, a new masterplan for Marsalforn was launched to much fanfare. In theory, an exciting and positive opportunity but alas, all the usual shoddy design standards were on show. Ultimately, the project was sent back to the drawing board, because of public concerns of water flow – which really begs the question; was the project under any real scrutiny, by experts who know anything about breakwaters or beaches?
Why, then, are Labour supporters uniquely placed to demand improvements and all of this and more?
Because in a highly-polarised political landscape, only voices from within can defeat the endless whataboutery that keeps up swimming in sludge and inhaling dust clouds for decades.
The largest voting block can bring about meaningful change, if only they tried. And the voters of the other major party need first to find their party before asking anything of it.
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