Its time to halt the process

 

The objective of a census is to collect data to accurately inform decision-makers. The 2005 census identified 53,136 vacant properties in the Maltese islands; 24,295 units (45.7 per cent) of these were flats and penthouses, 13,872 were terraced houses and 9,857 were maisonettes. Most were identified as being in either a good state of repair or else as requiring only minimum repairs in order to be habitable.

It also resulted that 5,724 units (10.8 per cent) of the vacant dwellings were in a shell state. Twenty per cent of the vacant dwellings were identified as summer residences, a substantial number in Gozo.

Comparing the 2005 census with that taken in 1995, one notes that the number of vacant dwellings in the 10-year period increased from 35,723 to 53,136, up 48.74 per cent. Faced with such an increase in vacant dwellings a responsible government would have applied the brakes to the construction of residential units. In particular, it would have either reduced the land available for development or, as a minimum, it would have retained the status quo.

Faced with this information the Nationalist government, a few months after the 2005 census, ignored the results and instead increased the land available for development. It did this through three specific measures.

Firstly, through the rationalisation exercise it extended the limits of development in most localities. Secondly, it increased the permissible heights for development in a number of localities. Thirdly, it changed the rules for the development of penthouses. Instead of being constructed over a four-storey high building they could now be constructed over a three-storey building.

This has resulted in a further increase in the number of vacant dwellings, which have now been estimated as being in excess of 70,000. The results of the latest census are awaited with trepidation.

The 2005 census had identified that there were a total of 192,314 residential units on the Maltese islands. This means that the 53,136 vacant dwellings then identified amounted to 27.63 per cent of the housing stock.

The number of vacant residential properties in Malta and Gozo in 2005 was equivalent to seven times the size of Birkirkara, which, then, had 7,613 residential units. The number of vacant residential properties in 2011 is estimated to be even larger: nine times the size of 2005 Birkirkara.

This means that today approximately one third of the existing dwellings in Malta are vacant. Additionally, it signifies that expenditure for the development and maintenance of part of the islands’ infrastructure (currently servicing vacant properties) could have been avoided and instead channelled to maintain the infrastructure that services utilised properties. This applies to roads, public sewers and the networks distributing/servicing electricity, water, street lighting and telecommunications.

Millions of euros have been thrown down the drain to keep the construction industry happy.

In view of the above, when the construction industry boasts of its contribution to the gross national product one is justified in being sceptical. When a contribution to the economic development of the country is manifested in such negative results (thousands of vacant dwellings) one starts to question whether the GNP is in reality an adequate means of measurement.

The present crisis facing the construction industry is a unique opportunity for the government to embark on its inevitable and long overdue restructuring. The large number of vacant dwellings is the proverbial writing on the wall that does not require any special deciphering skills. The construction industry should be cut down to size in order to avoid further environmental damage and to channel part of its labour force towards activity of tangible benefit to the economy.

Restructuring will lead to a migration of jobs, especially those that do not require any particular skill. Offering retraining now to the unskilled segment would be an appropriate policy initiative. This would ease the social impacts of restructuring and facilitate the migration from one sector o another.

Now is the time to halt the development of uncommitted land. In particular, the rationalisation exercise of 2006, the relaxation of permissible building heights and penthouse regulations require immediate reversal.

A positive signal was forthcoming from the 2012 Budget through the introduction of incentives for the rehabilitation of village cores and protected buildings.

These incentives were first mentioned when the Rent Reform White Paper was launched in the summer of 2008. Unfortunately, the gestation period of this initiative was of elephantine proportions.

The availability of incentives to encourage the rehabilitation of the historic heritage in towns and villages is not enough. It must be coupled with an increased commitment to train on a continuous basis the required tradesmen and women who need to be at the forefront of this effort. The industrialisation of the construction industry over the years has been the cause of the loss of much skilled labour. It is time to halt the process.

This is the way forward. The economy has been toxically dependent on the construction industry for far too long. I look forward to the time when all this would be history.

A Happy New Year to all.

 

originally published in The Times of Malta – December 31, 2011

Echo-Gozo : a race to be green

published on August 23, 2008

by Carmel Cacopardo

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sunrise at Marsalforn

 

Since early 2007, when a PN commissioned survey indicated that 31 per cent of the electorate identified itself with tiny AD on environmental issues (compared with 32 per cent for the PN and 21 per cent for the MLP) it has been a race against time for the PN trying to be green. Trying to make up for lost time it took many a leaf out of the AD book: one being that relative to eco-Gozo.

For Gozo to achieve the status of an ecological island it needs to embark on the sustainable development path. This will be achieved only by matching walk to talk.

Last month the Minister for Gozo launched a public consultation intended to give flesh to the government’s eco-Gozo proposal. The minister is maybe unaware that the blue plan for eco-Gozo has already been drawn up by the stakeholders and approved by Cabinet after extensive consultation! It is titled “A Sustainable Development Strategy for the Maltese Islands”. On reading through it she will find clear directions which she should follow.

The concept of an ecological island is a vision that Gozo can be alive and kicking but not antagonistic to its ecology and life support systems. It must accept that humankind is part of an ecological system to which it is ethically bound to acquiesce. It does not mean returning to the Ġgantija era but rather that the manner the economy and social structures are organised and developed must be compatible with ecology.

The waste transfer station may be an important element in attaining this vision but it must be a holistic vision. Unfortunately this has not yet started coalescing.

Eco-Gozo could set a zero-waste target: nothing is thrown away but everything is reused or recycled. But waste is not just the solids which end up in Tal-Kus for transfer to the mainland, but also includes the liquids that transit through San Blas on their way to the waste water recycling plant and eventual discharge into the sea. An eco-Gozo would reuse all of its treated water, ensuring that its treatment is compatible with its intended use.

An eco-Gozo would also ensure that it errs on the side of caution in dealing with resources. Even at this late hour it can halt the Church in Gozo from developing a new cemetery which is playing havoc with the livelihood of Għajn Qasab farmers at Nadur. An eco-Gozo would undoubtedly realise that place names containing the semitic word “Għajn” (meaning spring) indicate a source of water flowing naturally and worthy of protection.

An eco-Gozo would strive to generate as much as is possible of its energy needs through renewable sources. This is achievable through the use of wind energy, supplemented by solar energy and energy generated through waste, including animal waste. But most of all it can be saved through energy efficiency measures in homes and other buildings.

An ecological island would ban the use of pesticides and lead its agriculture along the organic path. Its agricultural products would be healthier to consume and its water table would be less polluted. Farmers need the assistance of agricultural pharmacists to gradually decrease the pesticides in use until they can do without them altogether.

An ecological island would ensure that the ecological sites which form part of the EU Natura 2000, like Il-Qortin il-Kbir at Nadur, and those which are of great importance to the island, like Ta’ Ċenċ, are properly protected, managed and monitored. It would also ensure that declarations already made favouring the rape of Ħondoq ir-Rummien are withdrawn.

An eco-Gozo through efficient public transport would provide a reliable alternative to private cars, thereby encouraging their reduction in use. As a result it would also encourage the use of bicycles, which are surely suitable to cover the short distances between the various villages in Gozo. It would also realise that the construction industry must apply the brakes immediately. Gozo holds the national record on vacant properties: 47.66% of properties in Gozo were vacant in 2005 (9,762 out of 20,481 properties). An eco-Gozo faced with this fact would undoubtedly insist that the community can satisfy its residential needs from existing housing stock.

It takes much more than rhetoric to transform an echo to the real thing! It requires commitment and consistency. One cannot flirt with environmentalists while being consistently on the side of developers. Running with the hares does not make it possible to hunt with the hounds! In crystal clear language, a political party which seeks the support of opposing lobbies is not credible because it transmits the message of opportunism.

Throwing money at problems does not solve them. But consistency will, through the weeding out of contradictory stances and the adoption of a holistic approach. Green credentials of political parties are the result of a moral conviction, not of political convenience.