The government has opened a veritable can of worms. To say that one is correcting anomalies and injustices are fine words. But is this the whole story?
Whenever limits to development are set, people will feel aggrieved. These were being addressed in the local plans which were slowly being drafted for each locality. Instead, the government has opted for a piecemeal approach, by jumping the gun, which has created pressure for more land to be opened up for development. Anyone who owns land will be pressing the government to include such property in a development zone especially if it lies on the periphery of one.
When the Prime Minister said the environment was to be placed high on the agenda this is not the sort of move we, or the vast majority of people, had expected. There has been no attempt to balance the new development zones with any safeguards on the little open land which is left. No mention of a national park to protect the northwest. We hear instead of even more proposals to develop the countryside: a golf course at Xaghra l-Hamra, massive development at Ta’ Cenc, the road network proposed at Manikata, construction at Ramla l-Hamra.
There have already been many permits given outside the existing development zone; generally for schools, quarries and factories. Furthermore, countless illegal developments have had no enforcement action taken against them, and, indeed, some of these will be sanctioned with the extension of the development zone.
There has, therefore, been no balance achieved between protecting the environment and continuing the inexporable erosion of our open spaces and the creation of yet further expanses of concrete or asphalt. This is unacceptable. To say that the environmental NGOs have reacted with anger and disbelief is an understatement.
If the reaction from environmental NGOs was to be expected, not so expected has been the criticism from the Chamber of Architects and the Malta Hotels and Restaurants Association, the second organisation seeing its tourism product being further undermined by construction and development. They can see that a country in a perpetual state of construction, with the dust, damage to infrastructure, poor aesthetics ad shabby finish, has almost killed the proverbial goose; and this from a sector which claims to have 40 per cent of the GDP dependent on it. These are not the sources from which one would expect criticism.
Professional as they are, they can see the appalling state of the environment and the dreadful legacy we are bequeathing to our children.
The bottom line is this: there is no economic imperative for extending the development zones. Construction only accounts for 4.7 per cent of the GDP. Neither is there any accommodation shortage. We know that the supply of new accommodation units has exceeded demand by at least 1,000 each year.
Furthermore, according to the 1995 census, some 23 per cent of the housing stock is vacant, three quarters of this is new or in a good state of repair. The government’s own letter to Mepa on the revision of boundaries admits that, ”there is sufficient vacant land with the existing development boundaries to develop 98,030 units, whereas the likely need up to 2020 is in the order of of 41,200 dwellings.”
Malta is already severely over-developed. Twenty-three per cent of the land mass is considered an urban area (by definition, that is totally build up). According to State of the Environment Report, apart from this 23 per cent urban area) has been built up to accommodate uses and activities that cannot be accommodated in urban areas due to their neighbour unfriendly character (like, say, farms, quarries and landfills) as well as a number of developments which require appreciable land areas that could not be provided within the development zone.”
Development has exploded beyond all boundaries of sustainability and credibility. The government should be taking steps to halt further development outside the development zone, not increase it by a further 2.4 per cent. The proposals it has made are unacceptable to the vast majority of our countrymen and should be withdrawn.
Martin Galea is Executive President of Din l-Art Helwa