Planning for the foreseeable future

Human nature has always been preoccupied with the future. However, at times we tend not to realise that we mould a substantial part of the future through our actions today. Unfortunately, sometimes our actions today and the future we want, point towards completely different directions.

Our future is necessarily a common one, as explained in the 1987 report of the UN Commission on Environment and Development -, the Brundtland report – aptly entitled Our Common Future. Drafted by an international commission led by former Norwegian Socialist Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, this report placed sustainable development on the global discussion platform, emphasising that we are responsible not only for each other’s welfare today but also for that of future generations. We need to consider carefully that our actions today have a considerable impact and can possibly limit the choices that future generations would have to make.

The impact of our behaviour on the climate is one such example. The impact of climate change is causing havoc in weather patterns and consequently also impacting on all areas of human activity. The patterns and intensity of rainfall is unpredictable. Our road infrastructure never coped, and now it is getting worse.

Earlier this week The Guardian reported that the planet has just a five per cent chance of reaching the Paris climate goals. Rather than avoiding warming up by more than 2oC by the end of the century, it is more likely that Mother Earth will heat up to around 5oC beyond the pre-industrial era.

The predicted consequences are catastrophic. Another report published in April this year had informed us that there are worrying signs for Greenland ice sheet which covers 80 percent of its 1.7 million square kilometres surface area: it has been observed melting faster than ever before. On its own, this factor could potentially cause a rise of many meters in sea level – as many as seven metres.

This is certainly not the future we want. Any rise in sea level rise, even if minimal, would threaten the functionability of all coastal areas and facilities. It would also wipe out entire coastal communities and islands worldwide would disappear. It would be a future of climate- change refugees pushed to higher ground by a rising sea-level. This will not only have an impact low-lying islands in the Pacific Ocean: it will also hit closer to home.
Take a look at and consider the places along the Maltese coast: Msida, Ta’ Xbiex, Pietá, Sliema, Marsaskala, Marsaxlokk, San Pawl il-Baħar, Burmarrad, Birżebbuġa, Marsalforn, Xlendi and many more.
Readers will remember the occasional rise in sea-level at Msida. In one such instant – on 11 May last year – the change in sea level was of more than a metre as a resulting flooding the roads along the coast. This phenomenon is known as seiche (locally referred to as “Il-Milgħuba”) and reported in this newspaper under the heading “Phenomenon: sea-water level rises in Msida, traffic hampered.” It also occurs at St George’s Bay in Birżebbuġa – on a small scale but on a regular basis, causing quite a nuisance to car users.

Now this phenomenon only occurs temporarily, yet it still substantially affects traffic movements when it does. Imagine if the rise in sea level rise is of a permanent nature?

Large parts of our coast are intensively developed – with roads and residential properties, as well as substantial sections of the tourism infrastructure and facilities. In addition, there is also the infrastructure of our ports which we have developed as a maritime nation over the centuries. All this points to the need for adequate planning to implement urgent adaptation measures in order to reinforce Malta’s coastal infrastructure. If we wait too long it may be too late.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 6 August 2017

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Malta’s Nine Ghost Towns

The 2005 Census had revealed that 53,136 residential units in Malta were vacant. This was an increase of 17,413 units over the 35,723 vacant residential units identified during the 1995 Census. Faced with an increase of over 48 per cent in 10 years, a responsible government would have contained the development boundaries as existing supply can satisfy the demand for residential accommodation for many years to come.

In 2006, just nine months after the 2005 Census, the Nationalist Party-led Government defied common sense and, instead of applying the brakes, it further increased the possibilities for building development through three specific decisions. Through the rationalisation process, the PN-led Government extended the boundaries of development in all localities. Then it facilitated the construction of penthouses by relaxing the applicable conditions. If this were not enough, it increased the height limitations in various localities, intensifying development in existing built-up areas.

As a result of increasing the permissible heights, sunlight was blocked off low-lying residential buildings in the affected areas.

These residences were using sunlight to heat water through solar water heaters or to generate electricity through photovoltaic panels installed on their rooftops.

They can now discard their investments in alternative energy thanks to the PN-led Government’s land use policies!

The result of these myopic land use planning policies further increased the number of vacant properties, which is estimated as being in excess of 70,000 vacant residential units. (Mepa chairman Austin Walker, in an interview in June 2010, had referred to an estimated 76,000 vacant residential properties.)

The estimated total of vacant residential properties is equivalent to nine times the size of the residential area of Birkirkara, the largest locality in Malta, which, in 2005, had 7,613 residential units.

These ghost towns over the years have gobbled up resources to develop or upgrade an infrastructure that is underutilised. Spread all over the Maltese islands, these ghost towns have required new roads, extending the drainage system, extending the utility networks and street lighting as well as various other services provided by local councils.

The funds channelled to service ghost towns could have been better utilised to upgrade the infrastructure in the existing localities over the years.

The above justifies calls for an urgent revision of development boundaries through a reversal of the 2006 rationalisation exercise where land included for development in 2006 is still uncommitted.

Similarly, the relaxation of height limitations and the facilitated possibility to construct penthouses should be reversed forthwith.

All this is clearly in conflict with the efforts being made by the Government itself, assisted with EU funds, to increase the uptake of solar water heaters and photovoltaic panels.

I am aware of specific cases where decisions to install photovoltaic panels have had to be reversed as a result of the development permitted on adjacent property subsequent to the 2006 height relaxation decisions.

In its electoral manifesto for the forthcoming election, AD, the Green party, will be proposing a moratorium on large-scale development in addition to the reversal of the above policies as it is unacceptable that the construction industry keeps gobbling up land and, as a result, adding to the stock of vacant property.

The market has been unable to deal with the situation and, consequently, the matter has to be dealt by a government that is capable of taking tough decisions in the national interest.

Neither the PN nor the Labour Party are capable of taking such decisions as it has been proven time and again that both of them are hostages to the construction industry.

The slowdown of the activities of the construction industry is the appropriate time to consider the parameters of its required restructuring. It is clear that the construction industry has to be aided by the State to retrain its employees in those areas of operation where lack of skills exist.

There are three such areas: traditional building trades, road construction and maintenance as well as marine engineering.

Traditional building skills are required primarily to facilitate rehabilitation works of our village cores and to properly maintain our historical heritage. Our roads require more properly-trained personnel so that standards of road construction and maintenance are improved and works carried out in time. Our ports and coastal defences require a well-planned maintenance programme and various other adaptation works as a result of the anticipated sea-level variations caused by climate change.

The construction industry employs about 11,000 persons. It is imperative that its restructuring is taken in hand immediately.

In addition to halting more environmental damage, a long overdue restructuring will also serve to mitigate the social impacts of the slowdown on the families of its employees through retraining for alternative jobs both in the construction industry itself and elsewhere.

The so-called ‘social policy’ of the PN and the PL have neglected these families for years on end.

 

published in The Times on 29 September 2012