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So many familiar buildings that we grew up around are no longer standing and have been replaced by faceless structures that house foreigners of all nationalities, strangers and their SUVs.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