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01 October 2014

One Third of Malta’s residential buildings permanently vacant

 - Saturday, 27 March 2010, 00:00

by Annaliza Borg

A third of Malta’s residential buildings are permanently vacant and 4,000 development permits more than necessary were issued in 2008 alone.

This meant some 50,000 vacant dwellings. Moreover, the accumulation of vacant property value amounts to over a third of the total savings of the economy.

Although only 2,000 households were necessary, 6,000 residential development permits were issued, according to the state of the environment report of 2008, which was published yesterday.

Between 2007 and 2008 new dwelling permissions dropped by 40 per cent, perhaps as a reflection of the economic climate. Some 90 per cent of permits were granted for apartments, suggesting a positive trend in terms of more efficient use of land, but this is only as long as the property is actually used, the report points out. The impact of tall buildings on the Maltese landscape was becoming a matter of concern, the report notes.

Oversupply was also prevalent in commercial and industrial sectors.

“Urgent measures, including economic instruments and re-orientation of the construction industry towards rehabilitation, are needed to address the issue in ways that do not place undue pressures on the affordability and availability of housing, and take into account social and economic implication,” the report notes.

Malta’s residential vacancy rate has been found to be too high in the past few census reports, indicating conditions of oversupply in the housing market.

Questioned on the way forward to correct the matter and whether the building of apartments in place of low rise one dwelling buildings were viable, the Parliamentary Secretary responsible for the Malta Environment and Planning Authority, Mario de Marco gave an uneasy reply indicating the government had given little thought to the situation.

Meanwhile, more residential development permits were being issued and the development zone footprint had grown, while impinging on outside development zones.

We must analyse why property is vacant, Dr de Marco said. “Is the supply too much? (yes, the report said so). Are empty dwellings second houses? Are families keeping second houses for their children’s sake? Has this issue arisen due to inheritance problems? Or have properties been developed but there is no demand for them to be sold?” Dr de Marco asked.

Initially he also noted that marriage separation was a reality and the need for two houses for a single family could not be ignored.

He agreed incentives were necessary for the situation to be rectified. He questioned whether the tall buildings policy made sense any longer, however in-depth analysis was necessary before decisions, he said.

Mepa chairman Austin Walker said the problem was complex and there was no simple reply. Nonetheless he admitted that height relaxation policies in the 90s and others in 2005 and more recent years had fuelled the problem, acknowledging that single dwellings in the heart of Maltese towns and villages were being replaced with countless apartments.

The property sector was an industry in itself yet it was to be assessed even following its downturn in the past year and a half.

Revision of policies, especially those applying to ODZ, was also very necessary, Mr Walker said. While everyone had a right to develop property in development zones, he noted that Mepa’s own policies, which were supposedly aimed at conserving the environment and controlling development could be fuelling further development. He added vacant buildings in development zones were to be utilised so as to minimise the need to move to ODZ.

Report Conclusions

“Our lifestyles must become much more in tune with nature,” said Dr Marguerite Camilleri while delivering a presentation on the report. Divided into 19 chapters, the report tackles nine particular issues including; air, climate change, land, fresh water, coastal and marine environment, resources and waste, biodiversity, and environmental health. It identifies relationships between the natural environment and economic activity while pointing out policy responses to current problems.

The report is published every three years.

Despite its important economic role, the tourism sector creates significant environment impacts due to additional consumption of resources, pressures on ecologically sensitive areas, increase in waste generation and land take-up for tourism infrastructure. The industry therefore needs to focus on ensuring a quality product that prevents undue pressures on Malta’s natural resources, by attracting more tourists in the shoulder months and by exploiting niche markets that are generally more sensitive and supportive towards conservation.

The report concludes the environment is a crucial contributor to the Maltese economy and directly produces 20 per cent of employment and 15 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP) through tourism and other smaller industries. The development of sectors which are less dependent on direct use of environmental resources are necessary for a more sustainable economy.

Green jobs, principally in waste and water management areas, contribute approximately two per cent of GDP and between 2.5 and three per cent of Malta’s employment. The sector was becoming increasingly important and was growing, Dr Camilleri noted.

Despite the increase in holistic and participative environmental education initiatives, the sector remains undeveloped. There is a need for a national education policy to guide the formal, non-formal and informal educational sectors, including making environmental education mandatory in the national curriculum.

Although significant progress was registered in environmental policy upgrading, institutional policy still needs to improve in terms of human resources and funding.

Airborne particulates and ozone were of most concern in Malta’s air quality. These mainly came from natural sources including desert sand and sea salt. However traffic generated pollution and construction industry generated dust were also matters of concern. A 38 per cent decrease in the national annual average of sulphur dioxide was registered between 2004 and 2007. This was mainly attributed to the shift in use of low-sulphur fuels.

The report also notes that greenhouse gases increased by 49 per cent in the 1990 to 2007 period.

Malta’s groundwater resources are being over exploited, due to widespread unauthorised abstraction, with resultant sea water intrusion. This intrusion is impacting the ability of Malta’s groundwater resources to meet population needs in terms of water quality. Legal measures are necessary to address the situation.

The contamination of groundwater bodies with nitrates is of major concern. Some 60 per cent of the water produced has higher nitrate levels than permissible. This meant improved water demand management was required in order to reduce wastage and raise efficiency levels of water use. Water pricing in particular, needs to be extended to private water supplies, in order to improve demand management over the whole spectrum of water use, with sustainability in mind. Most importantly, everyone, including those who extracted water to be sold for private consumption, were to pay for what they consume.

The status of 29 per cent of Maltese habitats and 36 per cent of Maltese species listed in the Habitats directive is still unknown. In addition, 64 per cent of habitats and 44 per cent of species have inadequate or bad conservation status.

Invasive alien species, such as the red palm weevil, represent a serious threat to Malta’s biodiversity. Action is necessary to eradicate them and prevent further introductions.

The Environmental Health chapter concluded air pollution was resulting in many respiratory diseases. The public transport reform and a shift towards the use of public transport as opposed to private transport was very necessary.

Moreover, 25 per cent of school entry children were overweight or obese. Many information and education campaigns were necessary to correct the matter as was biomonitoring of people.

Mario de Marco

Explaining that the report is only a snapshot up till two years ago, Dr de Marco noted that the country was becoming more energy efficient. Due to the challenges Mepa and its Environment Directorate faced, the government was to increase its workforce by 50 per cent (45 new employees) for more effective monitoring and enforcement.

While Malta’s environmental picture resembled the holistic European scenario, Malta was to supersede EU directives and in our goals. The National Environment Policy was therefore being formulated.

Waste management, the protection of biodiversity, water gestation and traffic emissions were our main challenges. He said our policy must be environmentally driven and each ministry was to continue seeking sustainability in day to day policy making.

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