The Malta Independent 13 July 2020, Monday

The breadth and the height

Rachel Borg Saturday, 30 May 2020, 07:00 Last update: about 2 months ago

With an area of just 316 sq km, the Maltese Archipelago is one of the smallest in the world. It is jam packed with Maltese, foreigners working here, and up until recently with 2.7 million tourists. The actual size of the population is hard to confirm but certainly way above the official figure of 475,000 (approx.)

Under the circumstances of uninhibited construction, it would be good to measure the increase in height in buildings over the islands of Malta and Gozo in the past 7 years and evaluate how much more air space has been taken up. The Planning Authority may give an idea of how much land both Outside Development Zones and on scheduled areas has been built up. We have some new maps for this. We should be told how many total sq km were given over to widening of roads and new networks. Transport Malta could also measure the area of the sea, as in shores, harbours and marinas including Mgarr in Gozo, which has been leased or lost to private lidos, hotel concessions, pontoons and apartment blocks jutting out over the sea as in the case of Sliema near Barracuda. And how many more are under threat of new applications and permits?

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Anytime that gov.mt/about Maltese islands gives information on the Maltese Archipelago, it should also include all of the above statistics. This way, anyone thinking of coming to Malta or Gozo would know that they are going to squeeze into a personal space of minus X sq. km, and that property comes at a high price or one must be prepared to be boxed in as windows and balconies are blocked by construction.

Then the number of cars on the road should also be listed and the number of persons suffering from asthma and allergies. 

It is not enough to say that Malta was in the top of the league of countries that managed to keep a low count of Covid infections and a low death rate, using that as a flag of convenience to jump into the recovery of tourism.

The reality is still with us. Yet we continue as though space is infinite and we can just draw out the air and compress our buildings in a vacuum pack as we pile and pile and grab and grab.

It seems as if the little hamlet of Balluta in St. Julian’s has been targeted as a victim for all of the above. There too we have not only the height but also the breadth being sucked from around us.  Not only on land but also on the sea.  

The platforms for restaurants and cafes line the pavements without any regard whatsoever for the rights of normal citizens, not through the fault of the Council who mostly object. The blatant take-over of the parking spaces by a café is just the latest dominance of commerce over people and their need to be able to circulate freely in their place of residence and make use of a few parking slots. 

But you may easily question whether there is a hand-shake between the platforms in the street and the proposed jetty to be used as a berth for a ferry operation in the tiny bay of Balluta and the complete disregard for the swimming zone and congestion on the street.

Add to this the spread of tables for restaurant outdoor seating and we may as well be told to apply and pay for a few metres for each individual to use for their personal space, though we already face the cost of property and are told to stay 2 metres apart as though we have the luxury of space.  Soon we will apply to the Planning Authority so that we can get a permit or a voucher to walk and breathe. We already have to pay an exorbitant amount for parking space as roads can no longer accommodate parked cars. Then someone who is home-bound can trade or sell their space to another person much as Malta does with its air pollution and carbon foot-print.

It is no wonder that take-away deliveries flourished during the stay-home period. Being confined to our few sq metres will become the standard way of life. The only access to air and leisure will be from flying out of the island and the only patrons that will fill those tables around the street will, possibly, be low-cost tourists. 

Families have been finding it hard to congregate in the same place due to parking problems in residential areas and limited internal space in accommodation. Gone are the large flats and spacious houses with gardens of the past. Nowadays, one flat is converted into 3. Going out to restaurants had become the most popular option as nobody wanted to handle the logistics of hosting a party and all the stress that comes with it, due to the limitations around.

But with our quality of life having been wrecked and more discerning tourists who travel choosing nature and space as opposed to stress and exploitation, the idea of health and relaxation has become a thing of the past, coronavirus or no coronavirus.

Simply, this frenzy cannot go on. A government is there to serve the people, not to walk all over them. If they are unable to do the job of governing without being run by business interests only, then they are making a mockery of themselves.

Yet, as we are continuously told, the odds are squarely in their favour for being re-elected. It can only mean that the shift from working class areas to the northern harbor area means something completely different to the newcomer than it does to the indigenous population. Plus 30% population in the Sliema, Swieqi and surrounding areas.  Maybe a platform on the road is a step up from the mobile kiosk that did the festa rounds. Some people, too, are too consumed with making money that they forget what a healthy life, a family and children need, and focus on their new car and new friends and then head out to sea on their motor yacht only to crowd the bays further north. For many, so, less is more and hail Labour.

We may as well, though, abandon all idea of civil law and civil service, remove the Courts, Councils and Organisations and just let disorder sweep over us and bury us under it like Rome under Vesuvius.

There is nobody in a position to represent the people who struggle to defend themselves, their town and village, their homes and their livelihood. I say livelihood too because, for example, tour operators who had purchased tickets for the Gozo Channel or other privately-run sites for their tour groups which then got cancelled due to the travel restrictions, have not been refunded and our hard-earned money is used to continue funding the entities, although those groups may only materialize in many months’ time or not at all in some cases. But the selfish mentality is so ingrained in the country that it is never thought to come to decisions which favour the client or the regular complainant.

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