Land Reclamation and the construction industry

land reclamation 01

The issue of land reclamation should be tackled in a responsible manner.

The Netherlands used land reclamation successfully to adequately manage its low-lying land. Hong Kong made use of land reclamation to create high value land required for its airport on the Chek Lak Kok island. Through land reclamation Singapore expanded its container port, an essential cornerstone in its economy.

In Malta land reclamation was used in the past to create the Freeport Terminal at Kalafrana in the limits of Birżebbuġa.

MEPA has during the recent past engaged consultants to assess the potential of land reclamation in Maltese waters.

A 2005 study was commissioned by MEPA and carried out by  Carl Bro. This study identified six relatively large coastal areas as search areas for potential land reclamation sites. The study had  recommended that these six areas, or a selection of them, be “investigated in further details in parallel with the execution of a pre-feasibility study, before a principal decision is taken on whether land reclamation is considered realistic under Maltese conditions. It is recommended that such investigations and studies be carried out by the Government prior to the involvement of the private sector in possible land reclamation projects.” (page 8 of report).

MEPA took up this proposal and commissioned ADI Associates together with Scott Wilson to carry out a detailed study on two of the identified coastal areas. These studies were finalised in 2007 and 2008 and consist of 4 volumes. The coastal areas identified and studied are those along the  Magħtab/Baħar iċ-Ċagħaq coastline and the Xgħajra/Marsaskala coastline.

These latter studies conclude with a detailed set of recommendations on more focused studies relative to environmental and economic impacts which would be necessary if land reclamation is to be further considered.

In Chapter 10 of its electoral manifesto the Labour Party is committed to utilise a programme of land reclamation as an important tool in the infrastructural development of the country.  The said electoral programme emphasises the environmental and economic sensitivity of such projects and underlines a  commitment to high standards in environmental, social, economic, land use planning and sustainable development fields.

In Parliament it has been declared that the next step would be for expressions of interest to be submitted by those proposing  projects for  development on reclaimed land. A call should be issued in the near future.

I believe that this is not the way forward.  On the basis of the studies carried out to date and such additional studies as may be required it would have been much better if government presents for public consultation a detailed draft land reclamation strategy.  Such a strategy would then be subjected to public consultation. A dialogue is required, not just with the developers but also with civil society, including most importantly with environmental NGOs.

The draft strategy would undoubtedly indicate the proposed permissible development on the reclaimed land. It would be interesting to note if the said strategy would consider the need for residential development in view of the over 70,000 vacant residential properties  on the islands. On the basis of existing and possibly additional studies the strategy would also seek to ensure that Malta’s coastline is protected much more effectively than Malta’s countryside has been to date.

All views should be carefully considered before such a strategy is finalised.

Once the strategy is finalised its environmental impacts should be carefully scrutinised  as is provided for in the Strategic Environment Assessment Directive of the EU. This Directive now has the force of law in Malta. It is only when this assessment has been finalised and the impacts identified are suitably addressed through changes in the draft strategy  itself (if required) that it would be reasonable to invite expressions of interest from interested parties.

Land reclamation is no magic solution to a construction industry which is in urgent need of restructuring. Even if land reclamation is permitted it cannot and will not offer a long term solution to an ailing construction industry which has been capable of contributing to an accumulating stockpile of vacant dwellings which are equivalent to 9 ghost towns, each the size of B’Kara.

The country would be economically and socially much better off if the construction industry is assisted in its much needed restructuring. It would undoubtedly need to shed labour which can be absorbed by other sectors of the economy. Retraining would  be required  to ease the entry of the shed labour force into other economic areas.

This  would certainly be much more beneficial and sustainable than land reclamation.

published in The Times  on 27 April 2013 under the title: Land Reclamation and Building

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