The times they are a-changing

January 24, 2016

by Maria Grazia Cassar

In September this year, Din l-Art Ħelwa had the honour and pleasure of hosting Professor Simon Molesworth AO QC, his wife Lindy and daughter Anika, for a week in Malta. While here he called on the President of Malta, the Minister of the Environment, gave a  public talk at the Valletta Campus of the University of Malta, took part in a Round Table debate at the Chamber of Commerce, and addressed Din l-Art Ħelwa Members and NGOs at our headquarters.  All this was interspersed with viewing Malta’s many cultural gems, including areas of natural beauty and, of course, becoming acquainted with the various environmental and planning issues which were discussed as we made our way from one place to the next.

The first thing which Prof. Molesworth remarked as we drove through Senglea where he was residing, thanks to Martin Scicluna’s generous offer of accommodation, was that he had never seen anything like it. He was referring to the spectacle of wooden balconies hovering above our heads in a kaleidoscope of colours and shapes. This was a unique environment and maybe one that we too often take for granted. He was delighted to see it again in Valletta, even in the post-war constructions, and he listened enthusiastically when I told him that some years ago, there was a scheme in place to help finance the restoration of these gallariji. A similar scheme back home in Broken Hill, NSW Australia had ensured the protection of the characteristic verandas of their Victorian houses.

He was captivated by what he saw, and observed that there was a lot of restoration and conservation of the historical fortifications, palaces and churches going on. Indeed, he was impressed by the extent and commended the government for leading the way in securing EU funding to carry out these works. The concerted efforts by the Restoration Directorate, the Rehabilitation Committees of Valletta, Mdina and the Three Cities, the Grand Harbour Regeneration Committee, the Malta Tourism Authority, and Heritage Malta, have resulted in many monuments and spaces being given back to the public. The Mdina Ditch, Forts St. Elmo and  St. Angelo come to mind, and many more are in the pipe-line, like Bighi, and soon the Malta International Contemporary Art Space at Floriana.  So far, so good.  Malta, it seems, is moving in the right direction and buzzing with exciting projects that will give new life to historical buildings and restitute cultural spaces to Maltese and visitors alike. We are preserving what is unique to Malta and making good use of it. This is progress, and good development.

However, the other side of the coin shows another reality. We had the opportunity of discussing this at the Round Table debate held at the Chamber of Commerce on the 16th September and chaired by Dr John Vassallo, board member of the Malta Business Bureau, and senior strategic adviser to Microsoft. The panel was composed of Din l-Art Ħelwa Council members Dr Petra Caruana Dingli and Professor Alan Deidun, Mr Tony Zahra, President of the Malta Hotels and Restaurants Association and Chairman of the Malta Industrial Parks Ltd, Mr Sandro Chetcuti, President of the Malta Developers Association, Perit Ivan Cachia, and Professor Simon Molesworth. The title of the debate was Business Development and Environment Protection: sustainable bedfellows? In theory, everyone agreed that a balance could be achieved, but in practice the very opposite seems to be the case. The full-speed ahead onslaught of building development that Malta is witnessing is changing our built and natural environment at an unprecedented rate, and unfortunately without the foresight and knowledge of the effects that this will have on our quality of life. Demolition of traditional dwellings is the order of the day, replaced mostly by blocks of flats, which are ruining the character of our towns and villages. Additional floors are obliterating views which could be enjoyed by all until not so long ago, and churches will soon no longer dominate our skylines, as we are forced to swallow the pill of high rise buildings, whether we like it or not.  All this is compounded by the persistent eating away at Outside Development Zone boundaries by big and small developers alike.

There are some who argue that it is a necessary evil. I think we all agree that it is evil, and the debating panel also agreed that it is NOT necessary. Din l-Art Ħelwa has been insisting for some time now that development must be planned on solid, hard facts and figures showing where the needs lie, and what should be allowed in order to fulfill them. We must have a vision, a master plan for our country, which will go beyond the few years of any one legislature. Prof. Molesworth warned us in his inspiring and challenging talk at the University of Malta that we must not “kill the goose that lays the golden eggs”. We must identify what is special about our culture and environment and protect it, otherwise we  would be opening the doors to the “curse of sameness” which is creeping into every modern urban conglomeration.

Good legislation is the key to good development. We are in the process of changing much of it at the moment, with the new Strategic Plan for Environment and Development, just approved by Parliament, and the MEPA demerger legislation also in force.  These documents have been seriously criticized by many, including the Church, the Commissioner for Planning and the Environment within the office of the Ombudsman and many eNGOs, including Din l-Art Ħelwa. The Parliamentary Committee meetings, then chaired by the Hon Dr Marlene Farrugia have given civil society a forum to air their views, and thankfully, there is very often cross party consensus. However, there is still much to be done to dissociate environment and development from partisan politics and the winning of votes. Most of all there is much to be done to look beyond the immediate monetary gain that certain types of development bring, and to quantify the real loss in monetary and other terms that these planning decisions have on health, culture, education, our livelihood and life itself.

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