In the last three years, the government has most commendably tackled the country’s economic deficit. While there is still a worrying gap between revenue and public expenditure, the annual deficit has been considerably reduced . Entry into the eurozone will force us to control it better. On the other hand, the environmental deficit has remained stubbornly out of control, and is growing. In most major respects the environment has actually become worse, despite the Prime Minister’s well-meant promises to make the environment a priority. Rarely has rhetoric exceeded reality more.
I propose to examine the environmental deficit in three parts. Part 1 will focus on the deficit: what it is and why. Part 2 will deal with Institutionalised Vandalism; and Part 3 with Valletta: A City Betrayed.
I shall start by giving credit where credit is due. For, in the enveloping environmental gloom there has been the odd shaft of sunlight. The launch of the first-ever National Heritage and Nature Park ( Il-Majjistral ) is a most enlightened and over-due initiative – a great step forward. Several minor and medium-sized restoration projects have been completed. Wayside chapels and other historic monuments have been saved. Refurbishment of a number of beautiful public gardens has been skilfully undertaken. Some afforestation projects – when they have not been destroyed by disaffected hunters – have started. Some new roads to be proud of have been laid.
PART 1: THE ENVIRONMENTAL DEFICIT
The Valletta Waterfront and Cottonera Waterfront projects are outstandingly successful. Some coastal and village promenades have been completed. The old city of Mdina can be ranked among the most beautiful medieval cities in the world. The management of cultural heritage sites under Heritage Malta’s tutelage has greatly improved. The country’s waste management strategy is well-founded, the monster of Maghtab all but tamed. Roadside advertising is properly organised and controlled. Some old quarries are being filled in and converted to vineyards. The introduction of a ‘park and ride ‘ scheme into Valletta is a commendable start in the right direction.
But all these are far outweighed in my judgement by all the other combined deficiencies in our environment. The evolving state of our environment in the last few years has been like watching a car crash in slow motion. Rampant over-development and land abuse, the progressive destruction of urban conservation areas and village cores, the creeping urbanisation of Gozo. These savage our past and intrude, for the worse, into every aspect of our lives. They exacerbate the deficit, of which unbridled construction – fuelled by huge sums of cash looking for a respectable home – must bear the major brunt of the blame.
The shabby state of our islands scarred by dumps and litter – despite the Prime Minister’s worthy vow soon after he took office of ‘zero tolerance’ on this – our chokingly poor air quality, excessive noise pollution, the threat to our fresh water quality, inland coastal waters and marine environment, the pressures on our remaining biological diversity and the gross impact of excessive transport use and solid and liquid waste add up to a picture of a country running a huge – and uncontrolled – environmental deficit. Even though a halting start has been made under the, thankfully, watchful eye of the EU, the ground which has still to be made up in the regulatory and implementation fields is formidable and growing.
Of course, Malta’s small size and heavy population density make us environmentally more vulnerable. But these factors are all the more reason for us to care better for our environment. Air quality suffers as a result of inefficient energy generation and excessive transport use. Greenhouse and other toxic gases add to global warming and particulate air pollution from quarrying and building construction poison the atmosphere we breathe. Renewable energy sources are a distant dream. Water quality in our aquifers is at risk from the most profligate over-extraction and from fertilisers and other intense agricultural practices.
Our inshore sea waters are suffering from marine contamination hazards, including sewage, oil spills and land-based discharges and a range of pollutants. Despite major improvements to the sewerage system, effluents are still discharged untreated into the sea, resulting in pollution, the degradation of our marine flora and fauna and health threats to bathers and divers. The islands’ rare natural habitats are under threat and many have been obliterated by concrete. A number of endemic species have become extinct. In all these areas, Malta lags well behind the bench-marks set by the EU.
Why is it that the environmental deficit is so large and growing? One of the key reasons is that regulation is lax and there is no overall national strategic plan for the environment. Expediency, greed and political opportunism rule. Rather than an overall plan for sustainable development which links the economic, social and environmental issues together, we adopt a piecemeal approach. The National Commission for Sustainable Development, on which I sit, produced a first class Strategic Plan , which was launched by the Prime Minister and the Minister for the Environment with considerable fanfare in April 2006. Since then – eighteen months – it has languished. The Cabinet has failed either to endorse it or, worse, to provide the minimal manpower resources necessary to coordinate and drive the Strategic Plan for Sustainable Development forward.
The principles of sustainable development – which include the multitude of concerns on the environment – need to be placed at the centre of government, into all decisions, policies and the way it operates. A workable sustainability plan is the greatest test facing Malta’s machinery of government since our accession to the EU. But for the implementation of such a plan to succeed there must be the determination – the exercise of political will – to convert the strategy into a dynamic action plan. This has been absent.
The second reason is the lack of enforcement of the law in the environmental field, the government’s blatant omission in successive budgets to provide the additional resources needed and the sheer absence of the political will to do anything about it. The rule of law will only be observed if there is a conscious re-direction by government of resources to environmental law enforcement together with the application of political back-bone which has hitherto been missing.
Illegal boat-houses abound and continue to be tolerated. Illegal structures continue to be constructed ( though in fairness to the Minister for the Environment a law to enforce quick action to deal with this is belatedly being passed ). Buildings outside the development zone continue to be ‘sanctioned’by MEPA; that is they are made legal. Illegal hunters’ and trappers’ hides continue to scar the countryside. Illegal hunting and trapping continue ( and Malta appears to be prepared to defy EU law to pursue this unconscionable ‘ sporting tradition’ ). Vehicles – chief among them public transport – continue to spew out poisonous gases.
Illegal water extraction continues to deplete our precious and irreplaceable mean sea level water aquifer. The state of building construction sites continue to defy government site management regulations. Littering continues unabated. Illegal dumping in the midst of our remaining cultural landscape continues. Our once beautiful coastline continues to be defaced by extraneous structures and tourism development. The stench and slurry of tuna pens continue to afflict large parts of our sea. Construction development is permitted to intrude on cultural heritage sites. The ecology and natural habitats continue to be threatened by illegal construction. Public footpaths in the countryside continue to be illegally closed. Illegal noise pollution is endemic.
Failure to enforce the law – a lack of national discipline – lies at the core of the environmental deficit. Lack of application of the law brings the government into disrepute and undermines respect for the rule of law which is the very basis of a civilised society.
At the root of the problem – a direct cause and reflection of the environmental deficit – is our greed and avarice. Rather than combat it, government appears to condone it under the mantra of ‘economic development’, crucially forgetting that economic growth on its own is not progress. Excessive construction development dogs Malta’s environment. We are collectively running an environmental deficit and mortgaging the next generation’s quality of life for selfish, short term economic gain. When a country is in environmental overdraft – as Malta is – it is surely wise to try to keep the next generation out of bankruptcy by taking determined steps to reduce the deficit , not increase it.
PART 2: INSTITUTIONALISED VANDALISM
The principal cause of Malta’s environmental deficit has been the construction industry, a seemingly unstoppable juggernaut which, despite its limited contribution to Malta’s GDP, has made, and continues to make, large parts of our country look like Beirut – pock-marked roads, buildings semi-demolished, dust and detritus everywhere, a policy of ‘slash and burn’. The government’s well-intentioned site management regulations to impose some modicum of order on contractors’ work-sites cannot disguise that Malta looks like a shambolic building site such is the intensity of construction under way. In the five years between 2002 and 2006 MEPA approved planning permits for the building of almost 38,000 dwellings – a record 10,500 in 2006 alone.
However, what is particularly disturbing about this construction frenzy has been the brazen manner in which MEPA, the regulatory authority, and the government have encouraged it. Nothing illustrates this better than the vote taken in Parliament on 26 July last year to extend the building development zones. The vote represented nothing less than an act of institutionalised vandalism on Malta’s environment without parallel in the last twenty years. Those government Members of Parliament who voted for the extension of the boundaries failed abysmally in their duty under Article 9 of the Constitution to safeguard the natural landscape.
The extensions to the development zones were pushed through Parliament in the face of overwhelming public concern at what was being proposed. The proposals were based on the false premise that rationalisation was a pressing issue and that we needed more land for development. Quite the reverse. All logic pointed to a freezing of the development zones, not an extension. It was illogical to extend building zones when , by the government’s own admission, there was sufficient vacant land within the existing boundaries to build almost 100,000 ‘units’, whereas the likely requirement for housing up to 2020 was well under half this figure. With, conservatively, almost a quarter of our housing stock lying empty and in islands which are severely over-developed, it was illogical as well as destructive to extend the zone – and ran directly counter to the Prime Minister’s own declaration to give high priority to the environment.
The paramount environmental challenge facing Malta is the need to control construction development and the way we use and share this tiny land. This is the root cause of our environmental deficit. The impact of excessive land use aggravates all our other environmental problems, as well as undermining our vital tourism industry.
Yet the regulatory authority, MEPA, to whom we should look to exercise control and protection has become an intrinsic part of the problem. In many instances MEPA’s perverse decisions have added to the overall picture of institutionalised vandalism. How else can one describe its decisions on Ramla il-Hamra, Fort Cambridge in Sliema and Pender Place in St Julians, to name but the most prominent? ( I make no reference to Ta’ Cenc or Hondoq ir-Rummien, where the structure plan may be about to be flouted, as these are still under consideration).
At Ramla il-Hamra, MEPA has given a permit in an area of outstanding natural beauty that lies outside the development zone – in the face of the clear undertaking by the Minister for the Environment following last year’s controversial extension of the development boundaries that no further development outside the permitted zoning would under any circumstances be allowed. MEPA has justified this decision on the most specious grounds. ( That this decision, with an election looming, has been reversed on appeal does not absolve the Board; it simply underlines the perversity, cynical misjudgement and potential destructiveness of their earlier decision ).
Fort Cambridge, Tigne Point and Pender Place represent institutionalised vandalism of a different kind – a crass misinterpretation when issuing permits for these developments of the spirit of MEPA’s own mission statement “ to pass on to our children a better country than we inherited. It is for this reason that we compare our environment to a treasure, something we place our energies in, to protect, care for and improve”.
How can we reconcile these fine words – which guide their every decision – with the ugliness which has been permitted by the planning authority in the three mile seaside stretch from Tigne Point to Spinola Bay , once consisting of elegant and handsome buildings now replaced almost entirely by faceless, high rise apartments? ( The same remarks could well be repeated in respect of Bugibba, Qawra, St Paul’s Bay and Xemxija). These make a mockery of MEPA’s mission statement to beautify, not to uglify, our country.
The permits for Fort Cambridge, Pender Place and Tigne Point ( the latter now nearing completion) represent in the starkest possible way all that is wrong with our built environment. They wilfully violate the organic texture of the town. They destroy the street line, the skyline and every other consideration of visual harmony. They intrude with their piecemeal development and create a ragged skyline. They are an affront to Malta’s indigenous architecture. They show no respect for – and care less about – the grammar of mouldings and ornaments, the traditional wooden balconies or the nature of light and shade.
At Tigne Point, Fort Cambridge and Pender Place what we are getting with these monolithic, intrusive, high density foot-print buildings – too massive in scale for their surroundings and imposing too much on the existing infrastructure and previously peaceful neighbourhoods – is an example of architecture which destroys its surroundings rather than adapting its art to its surroundings. MEPA has connived in this vandalism by allowing buildings which do not fit in to the townscape; that do not use an architectural language that puts a building into relation with its neighbours and the casual passer-by; that do not respect the realities of our climate and the human need for light and air in a world facing the consequences of global warming. They are creating a pale imitation of so many other foreign seaside resorts – characterless, sterile, modish, meaningless glass and concrete.
These three projects may be a symbol of urban virility to those who have commissioned them, vanity projects which will earn their developers a massive amount of money. But they are the epitome of what is wrong with Malta’s environment and the institutionalised vandalism which has led to their being given planning permits.
If the environmental deficit is to be reduced and overcome the balance of argument within MEPA must be shifted firmly in favour of controlling further construction development. Instead of land development proliferation, it must be land and building conservation that direct and underpin MEPA’s work. The public interest is best served now by the imposition of restrictions. The best action is that which procures the greatest good for the greatest numbers. There have to be sensible checks and balances if institutionalised vandalism is to be reversed and a long term re-balancing of the environmental deficit achieved.
PART 3: VALLETTA: A CITY BETRAYED
Three years ago, when I was still the Executive President of Din l-Art Helwa, I made a plea on behalf of Valletta, which I called a city betrayed. I noted with the utmost concern that successive governments had largely neglected this once beautiful baroque city so that it was today a shabby , faded shadow of its former glory.I called, inter alia, for the government to appoint one Minister to be solely responsible for coordination and action in Valletta. This call was partly heeded and I believe that the Minister for Investments, Austin Gatt, himself a Valletta Member of Parliament, was made responsible for the new traffic arrangements in the city and the successful introduction of the traffic congestion charge. The government is to be congratulated on this step, albeit more, clearly, remains to be done before a truly traffic-free city emerges and pedestrian zones predominate.
I also called for a structured approach to the conservation of Valletta which included a comprehensive action plan for the regeneration of the capital city over a period of ten years, underpinned by the necessary financial resources. I advocated in no uncertain terms that this plan should first focus on making immediate improvements to the appearance and day-to-day quality of life of Valletta. I urged that, in parallel, the action plan should tackle the major projects of Fort St Elmo, the City Gate, the Opera House, Parliament and the fortifications of the city in a pragmatic, phased and incremental manner as financial resources allowed.
Sadly, although the Upper and Lower Barrakka and Hastings Gardens have been completed, paving in St John’s Street and Merchants is haltingly under way and obtrusive cables and wiring have been removed from most streets, the other basic issues – let alone the major projects – remain unfulfilled. ( The wonderful Valletta Waterfront Project is peripheral to the city of Valletta). Pavements are a hazard and a national disgrace. The overall lack of cleanliness and shabbiness of Valletta’s streets are a crying shame . The entrance to the city has all the appearance of a third world country on a bad day. The litter and dog excrement, the broken pavements and pot-holed streets ( even though one or two have been re-surfaced) are dangerous and offensive to the eye. Air conditioners still intrude on magnificent facades. Street lighting is poor. Many buildings are ill-lit, grimy and poorly maintained, in some cases abandoned. The flood-lighting on the bastions is haphazard. Maintenance of the fortifications is deficient. The historic area around Fort St Elmo is an affront and an embarrassment. As to the master plan for Valletta which sets out a programme of implementation of the long-standing major projects, although one has been commissioned I understand that it will not itself recommend how the major issues of the Opera House site, the City Gate, Parliament and Fort St Elmo will be tackled, but will merely propose that a ‘Task Group’ will be set up to tackle these issues.
Over the last fifty years, successive governments have largely neglected this once beautiful city – in some cases adding their own excrescences, such as City Gate. We have been privileged to inherit a city conceived and designed by men of vision; fashioned by architects of skill, imagination, flair and style; able to marry the overwhelming and powerful military origins of the city with the needs of civilised and noble inhabitants. Valletta is a historic and architectural gem, a legacy in stone. It bears vivid testimony to the standards, ambitions and grandeur set by foreign leaders of Malta – people who have left us art and architecture that is irreplaceable and endowed us with a history and culture that defines our European credentials.What kind of a people are we , therefore, to spurn such a legacy, as we have done in the last four or five decades and to allow it to decay?
Valletta has been betrayed. Today it forms a major part of our environmental deficit.For a brief period we believed that the Prime Minister, with his apparent determination to do something about the re-location of Parliament to what is loosely referred to as the Opera House site, and statements at the same time by the Minister for Urban Development of imminent action to redeem the sorry state of Fort St Elmo, gave rise to hope that, at last, these particular nettles were about to be grasped. The hope was illusory, mere political rhetoric, as so much else on the environment. As also was the talk at the same time of the ‘renaissance of Valletta’ which confused – and still persists in confusing – the arrival of a few smart foreigners to buy and convert a few houses in Valletta and the recent welcome holding of successful Notte Bianca and the Malta Arts Festival with a regeneration of Valletta. This is truly to mistake the twilight for the dawn.
The determination to arrive at decisions on all major issues affecting Valletta is now vital. The capacity for decision is an absolute must in politics. We look to our politicians to have the courage to take decisions. But we have a genius for inaction. As the Opera House saga testifies, doing nothing is almost invariably wrong. This is the leadership pioneered by Pontius Pilate, which successive governments appear to have made their own in respect of Valletta.Valletta is unique. That uniqueness should be celebrated and conserved. When we build there and make improvements let us think – like the Sovereign Military Order – that we build forever. We cannot afford egoistical mistakes. When the over-due decisions about how to deal with major projects are taken let them be guided by the need that it should be in harmony with the rest of the buildings in the city. Balanced. Taking account of the scale of the site and the small size of Valletta. While Paris, London and Berlin can absorb daring, modern architectural challenges to the traditional structures around them, Valletta cannot.
Valletta presently constitutes a major part of our national environmental deficit. We want to see a city redeemed, no longer a city betrayed. A capital city whose uniqueness is respected – a fortified, baroque city truly worthy of World Heritage status. Though finance to underpin Valletta’s restoration is certainly an issue, it is not the overriding issue. The overriding issues in Valletta are vision, courage, decision. In short, leadership.
To conclude, in the course of these three short articles I have examined Malta’s environmental deficit. I have focussed on what the deficit consists of and why it has arisen. I drew attention to the acts of institutionalised vandalism which have exacerbated – and continue to exacerbate – the problem. And, finally, I drew attention again to the pitiful state of Valletta, a capital city of questionable World Heritage status which has been betrayed by our politicians.The environmental deficit will not be reduced until there is a conscious and coordinated effort by government to tackle it. To do this successfully it requires a strategic plan which lays down clear targets and a clear time-frame for achieving them. Moreover, the government has to exercise the political will to ensure that the regulation of the environment is rigidly enforced and that it provides the necessary human and other resources to do so.
The story of Malta’s environmental deficit is a story of greed, political inertia and lawlessness.I should add a postscript. I have written throughout about the ‘environmental deficit’ as a means of drawing a parallel with the economic deficit which this government has almost overcome. But the truth is that, unlike the economic deficit, the environmental deficit can never be wholly reduced because in the significant majority of instances – over-development, the extension of the building zones and the other examples of institutionalised vandalism, the loss of natural landscape and marine coastline – once these are lost, they are lost forever. The balance sheet is so far in the red as to be virtually unrecoverable. This deficit can never be redeemed.
Martin Scicluna is a member of the National Commission for Sustainable Development; he is a Council member of Europa Nostra and on the Board of the International National Trusts Organisation; he is Vice President of Din l-Art Helwa.