The Malta Independent 12 May 2021, Wednesday

The Dubai-sation of Malta – the end of the dream

Noel Grima Sunday, 2 May 2021, 07:56 Last update: about 10 days ago

I was there when the Dubai dream came to Malta, and for a long time I looked back at that time with optimism and pride.

Now I am not so sure. Strike that. I think the Dubai dream started something so toxic in our country that is now irreversible. And uncontrollable.

We have to understand this before we attempt to do something about it. We have to understand the processes at play.

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We have now reached a point (not just on this issue) where the government and the Opposition are broadly in agreement on the ultimate goal and we daily realise they are both wrong and unable, or unwilling, to see where this will leave us, or, at any rate, where this will leave those coming after us.

Dubai is a dream come true, for its people. They turned a spit of sand into a metropolis of gleaming skyscrapers, a hub for airlines and for cargo.

They had the land to do it, they imported human power to build the skyscrapers and the roads and they adopted a business model unlike that of the surrounding Gulf states.

We thought we could cherry-pick from the Dubai model without being Dubai, unless that was a distinctive geographic position.

So we unleashed the craze of building and building. In the space of a couple of generations, we have turned Malta into one vast conurbation, removing the boundaries that separated village from village.

There is now very little non-urban land left and this is speedily being gobbled up by farms turning into villas, fields wilfully left neglected so that they become derelict and can thus be developed, etc.

And built structures are being pulled down so that apartment buildings can take their place. There is no real demand for them – in fact, many remain empty. It could be that, as we have learned over the past days, these empty residences are the fictitious addresses of new citizens who have bought a Maltese passport.

Others are purely speculative, hoping there will be a market for them later. Just as Dubai is filled with uninhabited skyscrapers being erected each day and even by night.

There is one word which describes Dubai – unsustainable. The ongoing growth is completely unsustainable. They can only grow by continuing to build. And, having built, they have to come up with schemes to get people in and fill those skyscrapers.

Apart from being a Gulf state, Dubai has no other links. Whereas Malta is a member of the European Union, of the Council of Europe and of the Commonwealth – each with its own rules and responsibilities.

If Dubai, at least as we see it, is unsustainable, then Malta is even more so. Our land is finite and our countryside (that not taken over by hunters, etc) is even more so. As supply decreases, prices go up. If you own land, this continually appreciates, even without doing anything to it.

Those who do not own their home are forced to pay higher and higher prices for smaller units. Or see their surroundings turn into a slum.

The past years, and increasingly now, have seen the attempts by successive governments to control and bring some order into this sector. But each attempt has ended in failure. Each attempt has seen the widening of development permits, under relentless pressure by developers on the government of the day.

Do not believe any potential government that tells you it will control development. It can’t. Which is why many do not promise it.

In a word we are doomed to keep hearing of so many outrageous developments, from tall buildings out of synch with their surroundings, to outrageous developments such as the approved Tattingers luxury hotel on the clayey Saqqajja hill.

The Planning Authority, and its predecessors PAPB and Mepa have long been criticized for outrageous permits and, as someone remarked this week, it cannot be mere coincidence that the minister who piloted the birth of Mepa, and two parliamentary secretaries charged with overseeing the authority all came to head the developers' pressure group after they left office.

One must consider the huge business interests at play here, from those engaged in fitting the newly-built apartments all the way to the estate agents, the lawyers handling the IIP paperwork, the travel agents and so on and so forth. All owe their continued living to a continuation of an unsustainable model.

Like what is happening on the roads when an ever-increasing car population brings the whole island to a stop during the rush hour. And no amount of widening and straightening of roads will solve anything.

It’s too late now to rue past mistakes and wrong decisions. We have collectively made Malta unsustainable. The present pressures will keep worsening the situation.

Do not believe any party which tells you it knows how to solve the problem. It doesn’t. On the contrary it is part of a system that is as unsustainable as the one I have been describing.

The Dubai mirage is still at work. Damn those (or we) who brought it and those who bought it.

If you have time, study closely those who chose sustainable policies for their country (you will most probably find them in Nordic countries).

 

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