ODZ lessons : from  Żonqor to Għargħur

 

A planning application (PA3592/16)  to construct a home for the elderly in the area between Naxxar and Għargħur was due to be discussed by the Planning Authority Board on Thursday. Less than five hours before it was due to begin, however, the public hearing was postponed. There may be valid reasons for the postponement but, so far, such reasons – if they exist – are still unknown.

For the past few months, Alternattiva Demokratika, the Green Party in Malta, has been supporting the residents who are opposed to the development of this privately-owned  home in their neighbourhood since the planning application was first published.

There are various reasons which justify opposition to this proposed development. When faced with such a proposal, the first reactions understandably relate to the direct impact that it will have on the residential community – during both the construction phase and  the operational phase of the proposed facility. During the construction phase, this impact would include excavation noise and vibration, the nuisance caused by airborne dust during construction and the general inconvenience resulting from a large construction site very close to a residential community.

Once the home is in use, the traffic generated at all times of the day – as well as the occupying of residents’ parking spaces by visitors – will be one of the most pressing concerns to justify opposition to the proposal.

These are sensible reasons which justify opposition to the proposed development, even though some mitigation of these impacts is generally possible.

In my opinion, however, before even considering the proposal, it has to be emphasised that the construction of a home for the elderly outside the development zone (ODZ) between Naxxar and Għargħur is a good reason for objection in principle.

On the grounds of social policy, to continue encouraging the institutional care of the aged by way of residential homes does not hold water. It makes much more sense to help the older members of our society to remain in their homes as an integral part of the community, close to their roots, as long as this is possible. This should be the preferred option, rather than forcing them to abandon their roots and move away to the outskirts of our towns and villages.

The Social Policy Ministry harps on about the integration of the elderly in the community while the authority responsible for land use planning is facilitating their segregation. Obviously, somewhere there is a lack of understanding and coordination.

Locating homes for the elderly on the edges of our towns and villages is, in the long term, unsustainable. In addition to fostering segregation, instead of encouraging inclusion, it creates an environmental deficit by encouraging the displacement of a number of the residents of our town and village centres to what is now considered as ODZ land. As a result, this leads to an increase in the number of vacant residential properties while simultaneously adding to the built footprint of the Maltese islands – as if we do not have more than enough developed land!

The 2011 Census identified Għargħur as having a 28.5 per cent residential property vacancy rate. The rate for Naxxar was 24.5. These official statistics, which include both vacant properties and partially vacant properties, will undoubtedly get much worse.

This leads to another argument against the proposal to provide a home for the elderly in this particular area.  How can we justify taking up ODZ land for further development when even the site selection exercise, carried out as part of the application process, identified alternative sites within the development zone?

It seems that not enough lessons have been learnt as a result of the Żonqor debacle.  Is it not about time that the Planning Authority puts its house in order?

Policy coordination between the Ministries concerned with social policy, sustainable development, the environment and land use planning is obviously the missing link and should be addressed immediately.

published in the Malta Independent on Sunday – 25 June 2017

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Ghost towns in the Maltese Islands

The last Census, carried out in 2011 – with results published in late 2014 – revealed that in the Maltese islands only 68.2 per cent of residential property is regularly occupied. The rest is either vacant (18.4 per cent) or else used seasonally or for some secondary use (13.3 per cent).

If we focus on the regional data, the situation is much clearer. The rate of occupied residential property varies – from 79.5 per cent in the Western Region (between Dingli, Siġġiewi and Balzan) to 46.4 per cent in the Gozo and Comino Region. Table 1 gives the full data. Property that is completely vacant varies from a rate of 16 per cent in the Northern Region (between Naxxar and Mellieħa) to 23.9 per cent in Gozo and Comino as shown it Table 2. Finally, property which is used seasonally or for some secondary use varies from an insignificant three per cent in the Southern Harbour Region (Valletta to Xgħajra, up to Paola and Luqa] to a staggering 29.7 per cent in Gozo, with the Northern Region (between Naxxar and Mellieħa) with a 25.9 per cent rate being a close second as shown in Table 3. This data has been extracted from the 2011 Census Final Report pages 221 and 222.

This amounts to more ten times the size of residential Birkirkara, meaning that the vacant or underutilised properties in Malta and Gozo at this time are equivalent to 10 ghost towns – each of which is equivalent to Birkirkara, the largest locality in the Maltese Islands. This represents a substantial waste of public funds. As a minimum it means that funds spent on the development of the infrastructure (roads, electricity, water, drainage and telecommunications) for these 10 ghost towns went down the drain and could have been mostly avoided.

While all this built-up residential property is vacant or under-utilised, the building industry keeps building more – thereby adding to the glut. They call this progress and a significant contribution to the economy. Alternattiva Demokratika – the Green Party and the environment lobby in Malta has been vociferous about this over-development of the Maltese Islands. This state of affairs has been worsening, with neither the Labour Party nor the Nationalist Party giving a fig about the consequences.

Instead of addressing the issue, the PN government increased the size of the development zone through the addition of the so-called “rationalisation” exercise. On the other hand, the Labour Party has, during the past four years, encouraged more development.

Last March I had the opportunity to represent a number of Mosta residents in opposing the scheming of a large tract of land at Tad-Durumblat, Mosta. This concerned 38,600 square metres of land which formed part of the rationalisation exercise piloted in 2006 by a PN-led government. Mosta has a sizable vacant and under-utilised residential area consisting of 19.4 per cent of the housing stock as in November 2011. The Executive Council of the Planning Authority accepted my arguments and rejected the relative planning control application, thereby saving – at least temporarily – this large tract of land from the greedy forces of development.

Faced with this situation, AD considers that the number of vacant properties in any locality should be an important criterion in determining whether development applications for larger areas are approved or not. This should also apply to the large tracts of land forming part of the rationalisation exercise, in respect of which the determination of the applicable scheme should not be decided if the number of vacant properties is substantial.

It is about time that this situation is addressed and for this purpose, AD’s election manifesto is making this specific proposal: in those localities where the number of vacant properties is substantial, large-scale residential projects will not be permitted.

This would be a good first step in addressing Malta’s ghost towns, ensuring that their enlargement is restrained and thereby applying a significant brake to over-development in the Maltese Islands.

 published in The Malta Independent on Sunday, 14 May 2017

 

Region No. per cent
Southern Harbour 29,107 75.9
Northern Harbour 46,181 72.9
South Eastern 22,279 71.6
Western 19,584 79.5
Northern 23,989 58.1
Gozo and Comino 11,630 46.4

Table 1: Occupied property by Region 

 

Region No. per cent
Southern Harbour 1,113   3
Northern Harbour 6,650 10.5
South Eastern 3,294 10.6
Western 6,33  2.6
Northern 10,692 25.9
Gozo and Comino 7,444 29.7

Table 2: Property used seasonally or for secondary use by Region

 

Region No. per cent
Southern Harbour 8,126 21.2
Northern Harbour 10,556 16.7
South Eastern 5,552 17.8
Western 4,420 17.9
Northern 6,582 16.0
Gozo and Comino 5,996 23.9

 Table 3: Vacant Property by Region

Mosta : 38,600 metri kwadri oħra għall-bini

 

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Iktar kmieni dal-għodu fkonferenza stampa fil-periferija tal-Mosta, ħdejn it-Torri Cumbo, Alternattiva Demokratika reġgħet semmgħet leħinnha dwar żvilupp żejjed u l-qerda tar-raba.

L-art li se tintmiss din id-darba fiha qies ta madwar 38,600 metru kwadru. Dwarha l-Awtorità tal-Ippjanar nhar it-Tnejn li ġej se tiddeċiedi dwar xtip ta żvilupp se jkun possibli fuqha.

L-aħħar ċensiment li sar fl-2011 kien żvela li minn 8359 residenza fil-Mosta, 16.2% kienu vakanti u 3.2% oħra kienu użati okkazjonalment. Allura għalfejn l-awtoritiajiet kontinwament jinkoraġġixxu żvilupp massiċċ?

Din hi medda oħra ta art li fl-2006 l-Gvern ta dakinhar kien iddeċieda li tista tinbena. Dakinhar il-Partit Laburista fil-Parlament kien ivvota kontra u l-Partit Nazzjonalista kien ivvota favur din il-qerda.

L-Awtorità tal-Ippjanar se tikkonsidra l-applikazzjoni PC 039/09 li biha fdin iżżona se jkun permess żvilupp ta tliet sulari u semi-basement bbini ta għoli ta 17.50 metru minn wiċċ it-triq. L-art hi mqassma fi 93 plot individwali u 8 biċċiet oħra ta art li sissa ma ġewx imqassma fi plots. Din l-art, meta tinbena tista iżżid numru konsiderevoli ta propjetajiet vojta ma dawk li diġa hemm.

Bħal din l-art hemm medded oħra ta art li kemm-il darba tkellimna fuqhom, inkluż fi Triq Dun Mikiel Xerri, fit-tarf ta Ħ’Attard.

Alternattiva Demokratika tistieden lill-Partit Laburista li fl-2006 ivvota kontra l-iżvilupp ta din l-art u oħrajn bħalha, biex ikun konsistenti u jieħu l-passi neċessarji, dejjem sakemm ma reġax bdielu, issa li qiegħed fil-Gvern.

The rental markets

The liberalisation of the rental market over the years has not served its objective. Those who own property are still reluctant to rent out to Maltese tenants and the rental market is, albeit slowly, developing in such a manner as to mostly serve non-Maltese residents and ignore the locals.

I have no quarrel with non-Maltese residents renting residential property in whatever form or shape. The problem is, however, that as a result the high rents demanded have squeezed out of the market the small numbers of Maltese residents who, not having the means to purchase, must perforce rent out.

The rental market was dormant for over 60 years and was resurrected primarily as a result of the 2008 overhaul of rent legislation. It was a process that started with earlier amendments to the law in 1995. Unfortunately, there was no real preparation for the impact of its resurrection in the residential sector.  The end result was that the residential rental market is functioning in a warped manner, catering for the high (foreign) earners and ignoring those at the lower end of the scale: the low wage earner who lives from hand to mouth.

Malta and Gozo are being incessantly raped to produce more residential units, primarily for renting out to non-Maltese employees in the financial services and betting sectors that are mushrooming to benefit from favourable taxation rates. Yet the properties that can be rented out to the locals are being left vacant, as can be ascertained by an examination of the information published as a result of the last census.

Subsidies dished out by the Housing Authority may be of some help in reducing the resulting social pain. However, what is required is a radical overhaul that would place all vacant properties on the market. Ideally, this should be done through fiscal incentives that would encourage owners to shoulder their social obligations. A number of incentives have been or will be rolled out to encourage the rehabilitation of dilapidated property. The carrot will certainly function in a number of instances and a number of vacant properties will, as a result, return to the marketplace.

However, after the carrot has carried out its duty, it should be the turn of the stick. Properties vacant for a long time, say for more than 5 years (or some other reasonable length of time), should be taxed until they are put back to use. In such a small country we cannot afford to waste any of our scarce resources. Ensuring that this waste is avoided is everybody’s business.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 22 January 2017

IVA jew LE għall-iżvilupp?

The Towers Sliema

X’irridu?

Bini fil-għoli, iva jew le?

Bini fl-ODZ, ċertament li le.

Żvilupp mill-ġdid ta’ żoni dilapidati: hemm resistenza qawwja għar-riġenerazzjoni urbana.

Bini fuq il-baħar (land reclamation), ċertament li le.

X’irridu eżattament?

Ħaga li jeħtieġ li tinftiehem sewwa hi li l–art f’Malta hi limitata u allura kull binja żejda tagħmel il-ħsara bla bżonn. Ikun tajjeb kienu naqblu li ż-żoni żviluppati, jew li jistgħu jiġu żviluppati, huma diġa kbar wisq u li jeħtieġ li jibdew jonqsu mhux jiżdiedu.

L-unika ħaġa ċerta hi li hawn ftit iktar minn 70,000 post residenzjali vojt, inkluż dawk użati għall-villeġġatura, li b’mod ġenerali jagħmlu disa’ xhur tas-sena vojta. Din waħedha hi raġuni biżżejjed għal moratorium dwar proġetti kbar residenzjali. Tista’ min-naħa l-oħra tkun ukoll inċentiv għal proġetti ta’ riġenerazzjoni urbana li permezz tagħhom jinħolqu spazji miftuħa sostanzjali f’żoni residenzjali. Spazji li huma tant meħtieġa biex iż-żoni urbani tagħna li huma mitluqin jingħataw il-ħajja.

Il-bini għoli jista’ jkun aċċettabbli (jew le) skond il-kuntest li fih ikun propost. Importanti li jingħataw piz lill-impatti akkumulati fuq il-komunitajiet tagħna. Għax li jsir żvilupp ta’ bini għoli mingħajr ma jagħti każ bis-serjetà tar-residenti, bħad-diversi torrijiet li qed jinbtu qieshom simboli falliċi mxerrda mal-pajjiż, huwa ta’ ħsara kbira.