Knock, knock, who’s there?

It is hard to say at what point ex­actly Malta stopped be­ing a home to its in­hab­i­tants and be­came a piece of real es­tate.

Malta Independent - - NEWS -

Rachel Borg is an in­de­pen­dent colum­nist based in the tourism in­dus­try

The dominant fea­tures of our towns and land­scape have be­come cranes, trucks, tracks in­stead of roads, blocks shut­ting out the sky and views of the sea, garages ev­ery­where and black refuse bags ly­ing on pave­ments on the path of pedes­tri­ans.

Not even the quiet vil­lages of Lija and At­tard have been spared the in­tru­sion of King Kong.

As more and more out­ra­geous sprawls take over the open spa­ces and de­mol­ish the con­gruity of vil­lage streets and old towns all over the place – any­one can take a look and find it hap­pen­ing in their own back yard – with re­sult­ing de­mo­graphic changes as new peo­ple move in to pre­vi­ously ho­mo­ge­neous ar­eas, not only is the sense of iden­tity with one’s own home town be­ing eroded but also the feel­ing of liv­ing in a com­mu­nity.

So many fa­mil­iar build­ings that we grew up around are no longer stand­ing and have been re­placed by face­less struc­tures that house for­eign­ers of all na­tion­al­i­ties, strangers and their SUVs.

In the mean­time, habits have not changed and sys­tems, such as rub­bish col­lec­tion, that were de­signed to cater for a row of houses with rel­a­tively low traf­fic flow, now have to deal with 20 times the amount of bags pre­vi­ously col­lected and due to lack of civic re­spect here in Malta, most blocks or as they like to call them – man­sions, do not have their own skips and all the filthy bags are thrown out onto the street like the road ends there.

Get­ting car­ried away with the ma­nia of de­mo­li­tion, ever larger projects, higher tow­ers and com­mer­cial­i­sa­tion of ev­ery foot of the pave­ment is now at a fever pitch. Sniff­ing early that in­fringe­ments will be ac­com­mo­dated and en­force­ment agen­cies will only mean that some peo­ple will be given a job for a vote, the gold rush be­gan quickly, ap­pli­ca­tions soared, para­pets made of wood ex­tended onto main roads tak­ing precious park­ing space and mess­ing up even more the al­ready de­graded street fronts, ta­bles and sand­wich boards laid out like an ob­sta­cle course en­croach­ing on space from pedes­tri­ans and flood­ing ev­ery­where with a smell of food and the re­sult­ing canopies fur­ther block­ing the scenery. In short, Ar­mier comes to town.

The same abuse, the same dis­re­gard, the same ar­ro­gance and the same pro­tec­tion of il­le­gal­i­ties given a ve­neer of le­gal­ity. When Swieqi was first growing, it had street names like Park Av­enue which the Labour gov­ern­ment then changed to some­thing to do with wa­ter and buck­ets, like Triq il Barmil or such. Some other streets got names of birds and fish we didn’t even know ex­isted. A case of strip­ping a sub­urb, a com­mu­nity of its orig­i­nal iden­tity. But nowa­days blocks have all the fancy names of Man­sion this and Place that and any­thing that can give the owner an air of up­per class and that their in­ten­tion was to con­trib­ute to the high stan­dard of the area.

But this loss of iden­tity is at the heart of the ar­gu­ment and in­dig­na­tion that is be­com­ing more ev­i­dent all around us. Not that many peo­ple can show up to a protest in Sliema about pre­serv­ing its her­itage when so much of it is al­ready gone and with it, the orig­i­nal ten­ants, neigh­bours of decades. Oth­ers form part of the 177 ap­pli­ca­tions sub­mit­ted over three months and yet oth­ers are sim­ply residents who just moved there, from some rather uglier look­ing part of the is­land and feel quite happy that their façade has an air of wealth about it and the pent­house is per­fect for the Jacuzzi and mak­ing an in­vest­ment.

Un­til, how­ever, the in­sa­tiable de­sire to re­make the is­land spread its ten­ta­cles to the ham­let of Paceville, once home to the ex­pats of the Bri­tish Ser­vices of Malta, the Cable and Wire­less, the Naafi, which along the years be­came the hub of nightlife.

Fur­ther down, the al­ready trans­formed army bar­racks of St. Ge­orge’s Bay were set to get an­other deeper and def­i­nite erad­i­ca­tion. Out with the residents, in with the dosh. How far away we are from the BJs jazz club of the 1960s, Paul’s Punch Bowl, Dew­drops disco, Axis and Styx.

It is now a vo­ra­cious spread of low-life bars and some more re­spectable lounges, where serv­ing drinks and play­ing loud mu­sic is just a front for var­i­ous other ac­tiv­i­ties. Along­side this rab­bit hutch we get plans to re­build sev­eral 5-star ho­tels and to add new ones, go­ing higher and ex­tend­ing also to the prop­erty side with apart­ment tow­ers and of­fice space. Panic en­sues. How to man­age the in­fra­struc­ture, the in­creased traf­fic in an al­ready con­gested area, the ef­fect on neigh­bour­ing ar­eas like Swieqi and Pem­broke and a host of other problems aris­ing?

The an­swer was to come out with a Master Plan. This is the metaphor for tak­ing ad­van­tage of concerned cit­i­zens. In re­al­ity, that Master Plan is an ar­chi­tect’s brief, a de­vel­oper’s am­bi­tion, an in­vestor’s spread­sheet and some mo­ron’s call­ing card.

Knock, knock, who’s there? Master. Master who? Master plan. Now can you get out please, we need your din­ing room for an emer­gency exit.

Any pseudo master plan that has no re­gard for pre­serv­ing iden­tity, prop­erty rights, es­tab­lished busi­nesses and the opin­ion of the residents is only out to de­ceive, rob and con­jec­ture.

In­dig­na­tion and anger arises not out of some nos­tal­gia for the past or a de­sire to main­tain the sta­tus quo, as peo­ple are well aware nowa­days of the need to sup­ply our tourist in­dus­try and pro­vide good prop­er­ties and en­ter­tain­ment busi­nesses but out of the gross in­equal­ity when rid­ing roughshod over peo­ple, their homes and their val­ues.

The in­equal­ity arises from the ex­ces­sive im­por­tance given to build­ing against the val­ues and in­ter­ests of or­di­nary cit­i­zens. Paceville, Tigne, Zon­qor, Marsaxlokk, Sliema, Val­letta, At­tard, Lija all raided by the land grab­bers scoop­ing it all up and de­mol­ish­ing it with the swish of a fat tail.

Most peo­ple are not against build­ing it­self but the un­equal treat­ment of Residents vs De­vel­op­ers. It just so hap­pens that some towns and vil­lages ought to be and should be pre­served. Not ev­ery ap­pli­ca­tion con­forms with the law and who now is re­spon­si­ble to pro­tect us from abuse? Surely not the Plan­ning Author­ity or the En­vi­ron­ment Re­sources Agency. More and more of the public to­day get the im­pres­sion that these agen­cies are just fronts and have no real in­ter­est in find­ing a bal­ance be­tween her­itage, the en­vi­ron­ment, the com­mu­nity, prop­erty own­ers and con­struc­tion.

Before spend­ing thou­sands of eu­ros on Master Plans, we need both par­ties to make clear before the next elec­tion, ex­actly where they stand on re­spect for peo­ple’s homes, towns and coun­try­side. And that in­cludes hunt­ing. It also in­cludes the LNG tanker in Marsaxlokk with all its risks to life and prop­erty. The need for deal­ing ef­fec­tively with traf­fic, public trans­port and the state of our roads is also part of that com­mit­ment.

We need a firm com­mit­ment and a clear po­si­tion to be made public. Let it be borne in mind that we still need ac­cess to the sea, we still need some air to breathe, our grand­chil­dren need to be able to see na­ture, birds, flow­ers and trees and know­ing your neigh­bour is not a bad thing. More and more vil­lage feasts are find­ing difficulty to let off the fire­works due to the ur­ban­i­sa­tion around the area. Roads also are so full of traf­fic that clos­ing them off cre­ates a rip­ple ef­fect for miles (in Malta that means the whole is­land).

We can­not have it both ways. Some things bear pre­serv­ing. Some re­quire re­spect and dig­nity. Let us do our best to live a good qual­ity life and make one for the next gen­er­a­tions.

The Malta In­de­pen­dent Satur­day 12 Novem­ber 2016

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Malta

© PressReader. All rights reserved.