Sunday 05 April 2020

Over-development: We are reaching breaking point

This article first appeared on Malta Today

The almost daily announcement of large-scale developments about to be given the green light by the Planning Authority seems to have finally triggered a switch in a public which, up to now, seemed too lethargic and complacent to voice their objections.

But before I elaborate on this, let me just point something out. Sure the Labour Party was re-elected by an overwhelming majority, and part of the electorate which is now objecting to the out-of-control construction probably even voted for the PL. However, I really do not see this as a contradiction. Voting for one party rather than another does not mean that you have given it your blessing to have carte blanche to do what it likes. There is this mistaken conception that, “now X is in Government so just sit there and be quiet.” No, sorry, it does not work that way.

We choose a Government based on a wide variety range of issues, and usually because, faced by the options available, one party seems to be more capable of steering the country than the other. This, though, absolutely does not meant that we are all supposed to sit on our hands and zip our mouths when decisions are taken which we do not agree with. The public forms as much a part of the ‘checks and balances’ system as the Opposition itself, along with the media and the few autonomous institutions we may have. So I find it odd and misguided when Labour supporters are taken to task for voicing their dissent on a course of action by the Labour Government which they don’t agree with (on the lines of “well you voted for this lot, so now you have to lump it”). That is a slippery slope which simply leads to a dictatorship and a cowed electorate which does not dare speak up. I firmly believe that no matter how much you may support one party over another that does not mean you have signed some kind of binding contract in blood, and you must support it no matter what. And while there seems to be this impression that Labour supporters are much more “loyal” than their PN counterparts and do not normally verbalize their discontent, I am finding this to be another one of those myths which people like to throw around. Maybe my newsfeed is different to yours, but the adamant refusal to accept things as they are is coming from all sides.

So, now that’s out of the way, let us turn to back to the over-development issue. There is now very evident alarm, not to mention growing anger, at the sheer number of projects which are being planned. Several factors have contributed to to this: First of all, diligent environmental lobbies and sharp-eyed investigative journalists are catching the projects before they are given the final stamp of approval, creating awareness and instructing the public in an easy-to-understand format, how they can lodge their formal objections on the PA website.

When this website was ‘revamped’ and an important search function mysteriously disappeared, again it was the media which highlighted this change. According to the report by Tim Diacono on Malta Today, “the old website had allowed people to type in the name of a town or village and get access to the list of planning applications and enforcement notices for that locality. This meant that, for example, people could access all ODZ applications in a town by simply typing in that town’s name. However, the new website only allows people to search for cases specifically by their case number. This means that, unless people are in possession of the case number, such information can now only be gleaned through the Government Gazette and the Planning Authority’s geoportal.”

This type of obfuscation by stealth did not go down well at all and the public pressure which ensued forced the PA to bring back this crucial search function.

I think what has finally made people flip is that they have realized that it is all very well to speak of ‘progress’ ….until it happens right smack in your face where you live and you realise that your peaceful way of life, not to mention the value of your property, is going to suffer a severe blow because someone, somewhere, in some grey Government office, has decided that that patch of land right there would be perfect for whatever building is in the pipeline. I think it has also dawned on them that clicking ‘like’ on Facebook or signing a petition is not getting them anywhere. Moaning and complaining online using multiple exclamation points doesn’t work either – you have to take some kind of deliberate action (such as lodging an official objection on the PA website) for your voice to make a difference. They have also been shaken and rattled out of their defeatist “but what can we do?” attitude by the realization that nowhere is safe, whether it is in the North, South, East or West of Malta, basically wherever a greedy, unscrupulous developer sets his rapacious eyes, making “hay while the sun shines” because of the current laxity of development permits.

When people start being directly and personally affected by planning (or rather, lack of planning) decisions which impinge on their quality of life – for example, when they are stuck in traffic for hours on end because ten different streets are blocked by cranes and construction work and they literally cannot leave their home, then I think it is no longer an issue of which party they support, but about the dire need to create some kind of order out of all this chaos. We simply cannot continue to live this way, and those who pooh-pooh these complaints by claiming that we are always criticising, have either not been at the receiving end of this chaos (yet) or else are conveniently living in another country, looking at Malta through the buffer of Facebook and news portals, blithely telling us that this is the inevitable sign of progress which cannot be stopped. I beg to differ.

It is not as if Malta is a special case; we all travel and sometimes live for long periods in other countries, and those who are honest will admit that development takes place in an orderly, well-thought out way, that there are certain zones which are protected when it comes to the height of new buildings and strict regulations on what can or cannot be built in specific areas. In contrast, Malta seems to be like a cowboy operation in the Wild West, where anything goes and where laws are all there on paper…and that’s where they stay. The thing is that once one law fails to be enforced, the general feeling is that the authorities don’t really mean it, so if, for example, you go ahead and have a BBQ at a beach where signs clearly tell you they are forbidden, many look downright surprised when you point out that they are in flagrant breach of the law: “u ejja, are you serious?”

What is even worse is the expression which is now being overly abused and completely used in the wrong context: “live and let live”. That saying pertains to what one does in the privacy of one’s home or personal lifestyle choices, but simply does not hold when it comes to laws made to ensure civilized behaviour in society or where one’s behaviour impinges on the rights of other people to live a quiet life. It is these laws which prevent us from descending into a free-for-all and anarchy. And sometimes it is not even a law but simply good manners, and respect towards others which dictates that excessive noise should be avoided after a certain time of night because while you might want to party till 4am because you are on leave, other people need to sleep as they have to get up for work in the morning.

Little wonder that those who come to Malta on holiday or those who re-locate here either learn to accept it with a shrug, and even end up breaching the laws as much as we do, or pack up and leave in frustration, exasperation and disgust because they cannot get used to this way of life where anything goes.

But those of us who live here, who despite everything love our island because it is our home, and have no intention of leaving, cannot stand by and accept it all with a shrug. We have reached breaking point, and the growing indignation caused by the over-development, noise, traffic, disruption to our lives, too many people, lack of open spaces and lack of enforcement is like a pressure cooker waiting to explode.


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