Environmental Governance

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Having over 70,000 vacant residential properties is a very serious matter which both the Nationalist and the Labour parties have ignored in their electoral manifestos. Rather than being ignored this fact ought to serve as the launching pad for a different way of looking at land use planning issues.

The Housing Authority in the past months has opted not to build new social housing units but instead decided to tap the stock of vacant dwellings held by the private sector. It was a very positive decision pushed forward by Minister Chris Said on taking up his Ministerial responsibilities early in 2012.

In its electoral manifesto Alternattiva Demokratika has listed a number of specific proposals which would go a long way to address the land use planning chaos which will be inherited by the government that takes office after the 9 March general elections.

As a first step Malta requires a moratorium on large scale residential development. The building industry cannot keep constructing flats and maisonettes in hundreds, adding to the stock of vacant dwellings. The number of vacant residential properties is equivalent to 9 times the size of the residential parts of B’Kara.

While the Malta Environment and Planning Authority has issued development permits, the State has, through our taxes, been paying up for the development of the infrastructure (roads, public sewer, water and electricity distribution networks………) which is underutilised. These funds could have been put to better use than to service vacant dwellings.

The boundaries of the development zone have to be rolled back. Those lands which, in August 2006, were included as land suitable for development as part of the so-called rationalisation exercise and have not yet been committed to development should return forthwith outside the development zone where they belong.

The construction industry, aided by a myopic MEPA, has made a havoc of our towns and villages through encouraging overdevelopment. In 2006, when the final decisions on most of the Local Plans were being considered,  the Government had access to the 2005 census results which determined the existence of 53,136 vacant dwellings. This was a substantial increase over the 17,413 vacant dwellings identified 10 years earlier as part of the 1995 census.

Publication of the 2011 census results on property is long overdue, but it is expected that the numbers this time will exceed the 70,000 mark substantially.

Faced with these numbers, a responsible government would never have proposed extending the development zones. The 2005 census result provided the evidence for their curtailment not for their extension. In addition to extending the development zones, the PN-led government increased the permissible building heights practically all over Malta, the end result being a further substantial increase in the number of vacant dwellings.

In addition, the height relaxation policy put in place in 2006 had another serious impact. It placed a number of dwellings in the shade of new buildings surrounding them, these being built in line with the new permissible heights. As a result, the residents in these dwellings cannot make use of solar energy. Not only the use of photovoltaic panels is out of the question but also their solar water heaters are in most cases no longer of any use!

Faced with this situation, it is political madness to propose considering the construction industry as an important and fundamental component of the economy, as the PL is proposing. The construction industry must shrink rather than expand. It must be assisted to manage its essential and unavoidable restructuring.

The construction industry can be directed towards three specific areas of activity: rehabilitation of old properties, road construction/maintenance and marine construction works. Each of these three areas of activity requires training in construction skills. Rehabilitation works require old building trades on the verge of disappearance. Roadworks, though improving in quality, still require a more skilled labourforce. We also need to take stock of our marine infrastructure which requires substantial improvement as well as regular maintenance.

The Government can assist the construction industry to change through providing training facilties for its labour force, thereby reducing the social impacts of change. Funds from the European Social Fund are available to assist in this exercise.

Land use planning should be subject to environmental governance rules. It is for this reason that AD considers it essential that rather then splitting up MEPA, the Government should go for a defragmentation, consolidating all environmental functions in one authority through the amalgamation of MEPA with the Resources Authority.

In such a consolidated authority, environmental considerations should be overriding and, in particular, land use planning should be put in its proper place: under the continuous supervision of a properly staffed Environment Directorate.

This is the basic change required in environmental governance. Placing the land use planning and the construction industry in their proper place and ensuring that environmental governance is defragmented.

published in The Times, Saturday 23rd February 2013

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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