The Malta Independent 5 August 2021, Thursday

Concrete jungle

Peter Agius Wednesday, 2 June 2021, 07:43 Last update: about 3 months ago

A five-minute conversation with our youths will invariably gravitate towards discussing the sorry state of the environment on our islands.

But while in many parts of the world protecting ‘the environment’ will refer to the reduction of emissions and the dire need of protection for our seas as illustrated by the recent Netflix production seaspiracy, in Malta, our environment is more frequently represented in the frenetic rush to chop the trees to add bricks and concrete, one storey higher, one acre wider.

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Certainly, most of us who would know about it, would care about the habitat of our ‘Għarusa’ or Rainbow Wrasse, a very sympathetic inhabitant of the sea, so common and so friendly that you will certainly spot a few if you look for them this summer while snorkelling.

But we are not to blame for putting the Rainbow Wrasse as a second priority when the Government is intent on pulling down the few trees in our villages while virtually every village undergoes the transformation of quaint townhouses into apartment blocks.

Let me be clear as to where I stand on this latter matter. I am a firm believer in the right to property. Those who own property and want to develop it within the limits of law and policy have every right to derive the most from their asset. As a Christian Democrat I believe in the power of the market and private enterprise to drive the economy and achieve societal goals. Developers acting with ethics within the rules are fulfilling both objectives.

As with any good thing however, the right to property may be left open to abuse. And while any property owner or developer have all the right to explore how to make the most of their assets, public authority is bound to ensure that the exercise of their right to property is not undermining the freedom of others to enjoy the public milieu. As aptly put by that English philosopher John Stuart Mill (and by a hundred facebook warriors in other words) ‘your liberty to swing your fist ends just where my nose begins’.  

It is this important balance that is missing in our country right now. The imbalance in the handling of policy with regard to property rights is nowhere more evident than in Gozo. The island was a haven for Maltese and foreigners, not to mention its own inhabitants, who felt their birth place was the most peaceful place on earth. Gozo is now being disnatured through rampant development, 5 storeys high, right next to village core houses with a history going back five or six generations. At one place in Qala I visited a few weeks ago, you can see the iron ring used a few decades back to tie the mule right in front of a brick apartment block now basically putting the age old building in quasi permanent shade.

And yet, this could have been done differently without necessarily stifling development. That requires steering away from the current extremes. To begin with, the rigid distinction between urban conservation area and development zone, decided on a border on a planning authority server, makes sense for a computer planner but does not do justice with the aesthetic of our villages. Have our authorities ever considered a set of additional rules to apply to more considerate development when this is at the edge of village cores? Secondly, while it seems that planning rules are very detailed when it comes to heights and sizes, they seem to be entirely ineffective to ensure the overall harmony in our streets. That harmony does not depend solely on heights and building age, but can be achieved by investing in the finishing materials and final touches of new buildings to ensure a general visual compatibility.

While old homes are indeed full of character, it should not be assumed that new buildings have to be square and dull at the look. A few weeks ago I took a detour from Brussels to visit the city of Namur in Belgium, where I was fascinated with the masterful mix of new buildings side by side with 17th century castles and cathedrals. In one case, a modern building next to old city hall was built in similar outlines but in totally different materials. Steel and glass mirrored baroque stone spires. The result is just amazing.

Can’t we be more ambitious when it comes to achieving an overall aesthetic harmony in Malta? Does it have to boil down to extremes between no development or a 20 metre grey tower?

Finally, for the developer it is a question of profitability. In a case a few weeks ago, one developer was allowed to build the front garden by the planning authorities to ensure that profitability. I think it is high time we realise that profitability can also be achieved in other ways. Ensuring a better harmony of new units with the existing units in a street is certainly one of them.   

Peter Agius, MEP candidate    

[email protected]

 

 

 

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