Wednesday 18 July 2018

An island bursting at the seams

This article first appeared on Malta Today 

“Bugibba residents see red as rival Serbian supporters resort to vandalism”

“Tourists pack and go as Xlendi excavation works continue”

“Shortage of host families worries language schools”

There is a common thread linking the three headlines above, and that is that they all point to an island which is being packed to the gills with people, without any planning whatsoever. The more residents from different countries you allow to live on to this tiny rock, the more police personnel you need to retain law and order. A boom in tourism, while great for the economy, needs to be accompanied by the real enforcement of construction works so that you do not bring tourists to a hotel only for them to be woken up the rat-a-tat-tat of a jackhammer when they are on holiday. And you cannot keep promoting Malta as a Mecca for foreign language students if you have not had the foresight to ensure that these students will have a place to stay.

To use a cliche’, we only seem to bolt the stable door after the horse has already bolted. We worry about things only when they happen, rather than thinking ahead about the possible consequences, and then we have to go into crisis management mode in order to try and fix the problem.

All three headlines I quoted above automatically trigged a “mhux ovvja?” reaction from me. Seriously, isn’t it quite obvious that Bugibba requires much better policing and enforcement, when in a few short years it has gone from a seasonal seaside resort for tourists and people with summer residences, to a full-blown town of year-round residents from various cultures?
According to the report: “Last January (Mayor) Ms Galea had called for a national action plan for the integration of migrants into Maltese communities, following another spate of vandalism and graffiti. The mayor had also requested extra police as well as the deployment of tourism police, but the latter request was refused.
Six months down the line, calls for beefing up law and order were once again being made, this time by residents on Facebook.
However, residents expressed disappointment that whenever they had flagged the situation even directly at the police headquarters in Floriana, the situation remained the same.”

The above echoes exactly what has happened in places like Sliema and St Julian’s not to mention the additional problems faced by Swieqi residents who have seen their town go from villas and bungalows to rows and rows of rental apartments (with more to come) where there is no sense of ownership and civic pride because too many of the tenants are transient and temporary. I will hastily add that this does not mean that all tenants are indifferent, but that the tendency is there, when one is just “passing through” to (for example) put one’s rubbish out at any time of day irrespective of the time-table. An interest in the quality of life in the community and respect towards one’s neighbours is built over time, when one has lived in an area for a while, but with so many people moving in and out of these areas in quick succession, these ties are eroded, people stop caring about how their area or street looks and they just take refuge inside their dwelling after a day’s work, shutting the door to the chaos outside.

Of course, it doesn’t help matters when tourists and people who re-locate to live here take a look round and see mounds of rubbish on pavements, because they figure “that’s how things are done here” and they just fling their own black bag on top of the heap. Why is, it for example, that we would not dare do the same thing in another country which is spotless and enviously clean? It’s because seeing that immaculateness is in itself prohibitive – you automatically realise that the wrapper you are tempted to throw on the ground would stick out like a sore thumb. It is also because any attempt to litter would be pounced on, not necessarily by wardens but by passersby who would frown and openly reprimand you. Even if you don’t understand the language you would understand the gist and be shamefaced at the scolding.

What is particularly frustrating about all this is that the voices of residents is not being listened to, and that people have to resort to social media to voice their grievances. What is the point of local councils which are not backed by central government and given the financial resources they need? Sometimes I think it would be better to just dismantle the whole charade and stop pretending that the idea of local government has worked.

The construction which drove the Xlendi tourists to pack their backs is another symptom of a festering chronic disease which one day is bound to turn into something tragic. “Although reports were filed with the competent authorities, these works are still going on. Tourists staying in the neighbouring accommodation units are leaving their respective accommodation and terminating their holiday abruptly,” the Gozo Tourism Authority was reported as saying.

Apart from the inconvenience, disturbance and disruption to our quality of life, the sheer frenzy and speed of the construction is worrying and makes me wonder how many corners are being cut to get these numerous apartments ready for the surge of people who are apparently descending on Malta as if it were the Promised Land. What will it take? Some major catastrophe like we saw with the horrific fire at Grenville Towers or the recent collapse of the apartment building in Naples? Much as I fervently hope this never happens, I look at all this haphazard building, where flats are sprouting up out of even the most improbable small plot of land and feel an overwhelming sense of dread. It is just not sustainable, and I’m not speaking in economic terms here, but in terms of expecting people to live in such crowded conditions.

Human beings need air and open spaces and the possibility of quiet relaxation in uninterrupted silence – none of that seems possible in the cacophony of noise made not only by the constant construction but by the very proximity of living at such close quarters with one another. By nature we are a noisy, highly temperamental people, but squashed like sardines in a can on an island bursting at the seams is bound to make anyone flip their lid, so I’m not surprised that the incidents of aggression and violence have increased.

On top of all this we are urging more and more foreign students, hellbent on partying and freed from the restrictions of parental supervision, to come and study here. According to the news report, “More than 77,000 foreign students attended English-language courses last year, a quarter of them in July, and schools are bracing themselves for even greater numbers this year.”

But wait, they don’t have enough host families for them because the rates being offered are not exactly enticing people to come forward, and the responsibility of having to deal with rowdy, unsupervised teenagers also has its drawbacks. Again, it is a question of planning, of sustainability, of drawing the line and saying, we can only realistically as a country cope with so much.

But sometimes I think that in this heady atmosphere which has been created of money, money, money at all costs, and to heck with the consequences, we will only realise how much we trampled on our own industries and squandered our own country when it is too late.

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